School Politics Cracks the Race Wall

The unions like the one on the left...

The unions like the one on the left…

Who backs market reforms of schools? Conservatives, of course, and rich people. Oh, and African American voters. The race for superintendent of public instruction in California is suggesting a dramatic realignment of electoral politics. But those conservative dreams might not be warranted.

As we’ve explored in these pages (here and here, for example), white conservatives have long dreamed of shaking off their racist reputations. In school politics, it seems those efforts have finally begun to bear fruit.

It has not been easy. The conservative, or, to be more precise, the more conservative candidate for New York City mayor tried to woo non-white voters with similar school appeals. That candidate, Joe Lhota, blasted Bill de Blasio for his opposition to charter schools. Such schools, Lhota insisted, were the only educational hope for “minorities and inner city children, and children of immigrants.”

In New York City, it didn’t fly. But the race in California is much different. According to the San Jose Mercury News, one candidate for superintendent has cobbled together a coalition of super-rich backers and conservative voters, plus Latino and African American support.

That candidate, Marshall Tuck, is running neck-and-neck with the establishment choice, incumbent Tom Torlakson. Tuck’s success is built on his appeal to both the rich and the poor. The teachers’ unions have spent plenty to support Torlakson, but Tuck has still managed to outspend them, thanks to his deep-pocketed backers among the usually conservative California business elite.

Non-white voters like Tuck’s plan. According to a recent poll, Tuck leads by 38% among African American voters and 13% among Latinos. Why? One expert thinks that such voters want more charter schools, more vouchers, and less power for teachers’ unions.

Could this be the realignment conservatives have long been dreaming of? A chance to appeal to the conservative feelings among non-white voters? A chance to split off non-whites from the clutches of the Democratic Party and get them voting Republican on issues such as gay rights, abortion, and school choice?

After all, there have been similar epochal realignments in electoral politics. Most famously, FDR managed to convince African Americans to vote Democrat. Since the days of Abraham Lincoln, African Americans had been solidly Republican. Or, more recently, Reagan wooed “lunchpail” Democrats to the side of the GOP.

Could we be on the verge of a similar realignment? One in which conservative non-white voters ditch the Democrats in favor of the more conservative GOP? And if so, will school politics lead the charge?

There are a couple of things that should temper the hopes of conservative poll watchers. First, this California race is non-partisan. Both candidates are Democrats. So conservative African Americans and Latinos can vote for the more conservative candidate without abandoning the party of FDR and LBJ.

Second, though Tuck is the candidate with the more conservative positions, he’s not calling himself that. Instead, as with much of school politics, Tuck is calling his marketization plan the side of “school reform.” And his election fund, filled by mega-rich donors, officially calls itself “Parents and Teachers for Tuck.”

In this case, non-white voters seem to like the market idea that conservatives have long promoted. But they like it when it comes in a Democratic Party wrapper. They like it when it is called the progressive choice, not the conservative one.

Will non-white voters soon flock to the conservative banner? Maybe, but this race shows they might only do so if conservatism calls itself something else.

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