When Scott Walker talks about education—whether he’s in the parking lot of Office Products Co. in Eau Claire, Wisconsin, or on stage at Disney World in front of deep-pocketed, business-friendly donors—he mentions home schooling.
Perhaps more than any other 2016er, Walker is consistent and vocal in acknowledging that home schooling is a valid form of education—and this support could pay huge political dividends in the Republican primary.
He mentioned it in his 2015 budget address, in his 2014 State of the State speech, in his 2015 inaugural address, and all over the campaign trail, as well as at Governor Rick Scott’s invite-only event in Disney last week for business power brokers.
This is by design.
In an exclusive Q&A with The Daily Beast, Walker expressed deep affection and support for parents who teach their kids at home.
The governor’s relationship with the home-school community is complex, and—given his presidential ambitions—extremely important.
Home-school families have long been a political force in the all-important Iowa caucus. They helped propel former Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee to a surprise win there in 2008 and were heavily courted by Iowa Caucus winner Rick Santorum in 2012.
“[C]onservative Christian home-schoolers are among the most enthusiastic volunteers a Republican can hope for,” Reuters reported in 2011.
Walker is unequivocal about his support for home schooling.
“Tonette and I have two sons who both went to public schools and we were blessed that they were great for our family,” the governor emailed. “As governor, my goal is to make sure that everyone’s child has access to a great education. For many, that will mean a traditional public school. For others, it may be a charter or a private or a virtual or a home-school environment. I trust parents to make the right choice for their children and I want to help them have as many quality choices as possible.”
He added that he is open to federal and state policy changes “that make it easier for families to home-school their children.”
The governor doesn’t just pay lip service to the home-school community.
In 2013, he spoke at the annual conference of the Wisconsin Christian Home Educators Association (Wisconsin CHEA)—the only governor to ever attend.
Not only that, he issued a proclamation declaring May 23, 2013, Wisconsin CHEA Homeschool Day and met with the entire board after his speech.
He made quite an impression.
“The way he spent time with each one of us, talking to us about things that were important to us—he was just such a wonderful, personable man,” the group’s co-founder, Jan Gnacinski, said.
“We know that he’s a Christian, that he comes from a Christian family,” she added. “We just love that about him.”
Many home-schoolers loved him enough to campaign for him.
“Some of our greatest supporters in our three elections for governor are from home school families,” Walker emailed. “They are some of our most passionate volunteers.”
He added that a number of his staffers home-school their kids.
That said, the governor isn’t without critics in the state’s home-school community.
Wisconsin has two main home-school groups, the aforementioned Wisconsin CHEA and the Wisconsin Parents Association.
And the leaders of those two groups have very different feelings about Walker.
The governor’s home-school detractors make two main complaints about him: They charge that he hasn’t done enough to fight Common Core education standards, and that he favors “Trojan horse” policy changes that could limit home-schoolers’ rights.
The Democratic administration before Walker implemented the Common Core standards. Walker’s 2013 budget then kept the state’s Department of Education from forcing local school districts to further implement the standards, according to Politifact Wisconsin.
During his 2014 reelection campaign, Walker called for full repeal of the standards. That hasn’t happened—yet.
“We have a Republican-controlled legislature,” said Tina Hollenbeck, a home-school mom from Green Bay who runs the Homeschool Resource Roadmap curriculum database. “It could be gone. It’s not. On Common Core, he has done absolutely nothing at all.”
Out-of-staters are also waiting for Walker’s next move on the issue.
“There’s concern about his commitment,” said Shane Vander Hart, an Iowa home-school dad who contributes to Truth in American Education and edits the blog Caffeinated Thoughts.
Those concerns could lessen when Walker signs the budget for 2015-2017. Laurel Patrick, a spokeswoman for the governor’s office, emailed that the budget will set Wisconsin-based standards and assessments.
“The governor’s budget prohibits the state superintendent from requiring any school board to adopt or ‘give effect’ to any Common Core standard,” she continued. “The budget also defunds the Smarter Balance assessment and prohibits the state superintendent from adopting or approving an assessment developed by the Smarter Balance Assessment Consortium, which is aligned with Common Core assessments.”
Many politically active home-schoolers couldn’t be more opposed to Common Core. Hollenbeck said they worry the standards could end up limiting their academic freedom and making it harder for home-schooled students to do well on Common Core-friendly standardized tests.
Vander Hart echoed those concerns.
“When you have these college entrance exams saying, ‘Hey, we’re going to align to these standards,’ it’s putting pressure on us to adopt policies and standards that we don’t necessarily want to implement in our homes,” he said. “I’m optimistic, I think home school kids will do well regardless. But it’s something we shouldn’t have to deal with.”
Walker reiterated his opposition to Common Core on Glenn Beck’s radio show in April. If he’s successful in pushing the standards out of the state, it will likely increase his backing from home-schoolers nationwide.
The second controversy in Walker/home-school world relates to sports and is itself controversial within the home-school community.
The current budget proposal would let home-schooled students play on public-school sports teams if they don’t have “inadequate academic performance.” Walker favors the change.
“Home school families pay property taxes for the public schools and live within the jurisdiction,” he wrote. “It only makes sense that their children can participate in sports.”
Wisconsin CHEA is neutral on the issue. But the Wisconsin Parents Association charges that if local officials start setting standards for what determines adequate academic performance, the state will go down a slippery slope of government regulation and intrusion. So they oppose the change.
“We all think he’s a good guy who means well,” Hollenbeck said. “But the biggest thing is, he doesn’t understand the home-school community and he doesn’t care to understand what we really want.”
There isn’t good data on where the state’s home-schoolers come down on the issue. The community isn’t a monolith. Teachers’ unions are typically the most staunch opponents of these policy changes, and his stance on the issue is unlikely to cause any trouble for him on the trail (if he runs!).
Even if these complaints didn’t exist, Walker would still have stiff competition for home-school supporters.
Ted Cruz has actively sought their backing in Iowa. He spoke to the Network of Iowa Christian Home Educators’ annual Capitol Day on April 9, along with Rick Santorum, Mike Huckabee, and Bobby Jindal. The Texas senator also spoke at the same event in 2014, and met with New Hampshire home-schoolers this past April. And, per spokeswoman Catherine Frazier, the senator’s Iowa state director, Bryan English, home-schools his kids and is a member of the state’s home-school organization NICHE.
Huckabee’s campaign still claims a strong foothold in the community.
“Behind every one of Gov. Huckabee’s political victories, you can find a strong, committed, and active home school community,” emailed campaign spokesman Hogan Gidley. “Gov. Huckabee has been their longtime champion, sharing their beliefs that education decisions are best made at the most local level by moms and dads, because education is best when it’s a family function, not a federal one.”
Still, Walker’s consistent and vocal praise of home-schooling—and to non-home-school audiences—distinguishes him. And given his strong Iowa poll numbers, it could be making a difference.