LONDONDERRY, N.H. — In a warm high school gymnasium where basketball hoops hung from the rafters, six Republican presidential hopefuls appeared Wednesday before a crowd of parents and community members to detail their plans to improve America’s public schools, which many of them described as being in crisis.
Jeb Bush, the former governor of Florida; New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, former Hewlett-Packard chief executive Carly Fiorina; Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal, Ohio Gov. John Kasich and Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker discussed education issues at the day-long forum at Londonderry High School, six months ahead of the New Hampshire primary.
Campbell Brown — a former CNN reporter who is now an education advocate and editor of the Seventy Four, an education Web site — said her organization sponsored the event in the hope of pressing candidates to move beyond sound bites and rhetorical swipes often heard in debates.
But in 45-minute interview sessions with Brown, the conservative candidates offered largely the same opinions. They said they view teacher unions as playing an outsize role in education, and they want to expand school choice by encouraging charter schools and voucher programs. And given that they all believe that the role of the federal government should be diminished, they said they would encourage — but not mandate — their favored changes.
Asked whether she believed that any federal programs are working, Fiorina offered no examples but replied that the U.S. Education Department should be audited.
“When Washington spends more money, the quality of the education does not improve,” she said. “What doesn’t work are big bureaucratic programs from Washington, D.C. What doesn’t work are people spending money on mandated programs either at the state or the federal level.”
The candidates diverged only on the politically hot issue of the Common Core State Standards. The academic standards — created by a bipartisan group of governors and state education chiefs and endorsed by the Obama administration — aim to bring some amount of uniformity to public schooling. Although adoption of the standards was left up to states, many candidates have framed Common Core as an example of how the federal government is trying to impose its will on local government.
Bush, a longtime Common Core supporter, argued for the necessity of high standards, whether they are the Common Core or something else.
“Higher standards . . . yields higher student achievement,” Bush said. “If people don’t like Common Core, fine. Just make sure your standards are higher than the ones you had before.”
Kasich echoed that sentiment and defended his state’s adoption of the standards.
“What I believe in Ohio is we should have higher standards,” Kasich said. “If other states don’t want to do that, that’s fine.”
Christie, Walker and Jindal all once supported the standards but now oppose them. Jindal has emerged as one of the most aggressive opponents of the standards, suing the federal government in an effort to dismantle them. Brown pressed them to explain why they pivoted.
Christie said he shifted his position on Common Core because he believed that it was no longer working in New Jersey. Walker said he listened to concerns that it was taking away too much control from local officials. And Jindal said he was misled, believing that local and state officials would be given the opportunity to provide meaningful input.
All of the candidates said they support expanding school choice, and some highlighted their records of giving more families money to send their children to private school via vouchers. Jindal said he favors giving everyone vouchers.
“One of the things that I’d like to see is universal choice . . . even for parents that can afford it on their own. Why should they pay twice?” Jindal said. “Why should they pay taxes and then tuition?”
For Pauline McKivergan, a Republican from Londonderry, education will weigh heavily on her mind when she heads to the polls. She decided to home-school her four children after finding that private school didn’t provide enough rigor. She wishes there could be tax credits for home-schooling parents because educating her children has been expensive.
“I really liked the conversation about choice and that public school isn’t one-size-fits-all,” McKivergan said.
Kristen Sweet, an independent voter who attended the event, said she is uncomfortable with the idea of vouchers, even though her 7-year-old daughter attends parochial school.
“I think that’s a tough one, because what would happen to all the schools the children were pulled out of?” said Sweet, who said she is undecided about the presidential election, which is more than 14 months away.
Teachers unions — a frequent target for GOP candidates and for Brown, who has filed a suit challenging unions and teacher tenure — took more hits. Christie rehashed his now-famous line, declaring, “I have no problem with saying that the teachers’ unions deserve a political punch in the face, which they do.”
Kasich joked that he would like to “abolish all teachers’ lounges, where they sit together and worry about ‘Woe is us.’ ”
Outside, dozens of supporters of teachers unions rallied, some of them chanting “Bernie! Bernie!” for presidential candidate Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.). Many said they are bothered that many candidates pin public schools’ failings on teachers and their unions.
Asked about Kasich’s teacher-lounge comment, special-education teacher Allison Estes-Browne laughed.
“Teachers’ lounges are spaces where teachers actually collaborate,” Estes-Browne said, adding that she doesn’t often hear whining in the lounge of her school, Plymouth Elementary.
Although education rarely rates as a top issue for voters in presidential elections, the forum’s organizers see the 2016 cycle as a rare opportunity to elevate education concerns: Eleven of those vying for nominations on both tickets are current or former governors, meaning that they have been forced to weigh in on how much of a role the federal government should play in educating the children of their respective states.
Democratic front-runner Hillary Rodham Clinton, who garnered the endorsement of the American Federation of Teachers, has announced a $350 billion plan to reduce the cost of college and offer relief for debt-burdened college graduates.
The Seventy Four has scheduled an Iowa education forum for Democrats in October.