Mike Pence Really Could Be Worse Than Trump

by Benjamin Studebaker

As the talk of impeaching President Trump has ramped up, a lot of people seem to be really excited by the prospect of his removal. I’m afraid I can’t share the enthusiasm. Why? I’m a Hoosier–I grew up in Indiana, the state Vice President Pence governed from 2013 to 2017. My parents still live there. Every year I come back from grad school in the summers and over the holidays to reconnect with my roots, and even when I’m faraway I make a point to stay up to date on the happenings in my state. This means that for the last four years I’ve had a pretty detailed look at Pence. Most Americans seem to view him as some kind of serious, responsible, adult Republican. This understanding is grounded in the way Pence has presented himself on the national stage–as this taciturn, businesslike bridge between the different Republican factions. Pence has done an impressive marketing job getting people to view him this way, because when he’s in power it’s a very different story. Let me tell you some Mike Pence tales.

Many people are at least a little familiar with Pence’s social conservatism. His Religious Freedom Restoration Act received national notoriety. The law was written broadly to give people wide latitude in the exercise of their religious beliefs. Indiana has no laws criminalizing discrimination on the basis of sexuality, and in combination with this the law effectively protected the right to discriminate on the basis of sexuality. Under that law, LGBTs might be denied employment, housing, or service if the employer, landlord, or business owner objected to their sexuality on religious grounds. There were other times when Mike Pence got weird about social issues. In 2002, he told an interviewer that condoms were “too modern” a solution to STDs. He calls his wife “Mother“. When he was in congress, he argued that the Ryan White Care Act–which helps AIDS patients–should only be renewed only if it directed resources “toward those institutions which provide assistance to those seeking to change their sexual behavior.” As governor, he rejected $80 million in federal Pre-K funding, and the rumor is that he did so because he feared that the government would corrupt young children with irreligious values. He signed a bill into law giving $3.7 million to “Real Alternatives”, a firm which runs “abortion crisis centers”. Instead of providing medical treatment, these centers pressure women into changing their minds about abortions. The program was suspended when it was revealed that Real Alternatives came under investigation for serially overcharging women. The same law that funded Real Alternatives also required that fetuses be given funerals. It was blocked by a federal judge. While Donald Trump has said that Planned Parenthood, “does very good work for millions of women,” Mike Pence says:

If Planned Parenthood wants to be involved in providing counseling services and HIV testing, they ought not be in the business of providing abortions. As long as they aspire to do that, I’ll be after them…I am interested in doing what we can, in the balance of this fiscal year, to end public funding of Planned Parenthood, specifically.

A lot of the pieces that try to pull back the curtain on Pence focus on this stuff. But there’s more. Allow me to tell you the tale of what Mike Pence did to the schools of Indiana.

Under Mike Pence, Indiana state education spending fell rather rapidly:

This change, from around 2.4% of GDP to around 2.0%, is a cut of about 18%. If that cut hadn’t been made, Indiana schools would have received about $1 billion in additional funding from the state in 2017. Now, there are many US states that have faced budget problems since the 2008 economic crisis and have had to make cuts. In a vacuum, this statistic doesn’t seem remarkable. But crucially, Indiana doesn’t have a budget problem.

Back in 2006, Mike Pence’s predecessor, Mitch Daniels (the guy who now runs Purdue University) decided to lease the Indiana Toll Road to a foreign consortium for $3.8 billion. He didn’t get a very good deal–the firm that leased the toll road eventually went bust, and passed it on to another company for $5.7 billion in 2015. Once you adjust for inflation, the road resold for about $1 billion more than Daniels’ price. The lease of the toll road was supposed to enable Indiana to make big investments, but when Daniels left office in 2012 there was still plenty of money left over–about $2 billion in cash reserves. You want to know how big those reserves are now? $2.24 billion. Meanwhile Indiana’s schools have plummeted down the rankings.

When the toll road was sold, Indiana ranked 21st in instructor salaries, as a percentage of the national average. When Pence took office, it ranked 31st. You want to know where Indiana ranks now? 39th. That’s a fall from 96% of the average to 86%. Meanwhile, neighboring Illinois has kept its teacher salaries competitive, even in the face of intense budget problems. They moved from 10th to 17th to 15th, sitting now at 103% of the average. You know what that means? If you’re a good teacher, you move to Illinois. Or better yet, Michigan–where salaries are 106% of the average. Indeed, today you’re better off in Ohio (99%) or even Kentucky (90%). Every single state around Indiana is a better state to teach in without exception:

The result is that Indiana produces teacher brain drain. Indiana University’s education program ranks 32nd in the nation, and its best products leave the state. Indiana is left with teachers who can’t get a job anywhere else, and increasingly it faces a massive teacher shortage. It is now the 4th worst state in the country for teacher recruitment and retention. 92% of Indiana superintendents report a shortage. Schools have been filling gaps with long-term substitutes and student teachers.

What did Pence do about all this? He didn’t use the state’s reserves to solve the problem. Instead he began lowering the teaching standards. Now you don’t even need an education degree to teach in Indiana–a bachelor’s degree in anything with a 3.0 GPA is good enough. This turns teaching into a backup career for Hoosiers who are unable to find work that’s more closely related to their degrees.

In the meantime, Indiana initiated a suite of reforms enabling teachers and schools to be judged based on standardized test scores. Schools that underperform would be sanctioned by the state, and the funds they were denied were to be funnelled into private voucher programs. They also included the adoption of common core, which was especially unpopular in the rural, more conservative parts of the state. This led to a backlash, and in 2012, Hoosiers voted for Glenda Ritz for state superintendent. She promised to block the reforms, and had the support of the teachers’ unions. Pence became governor at the same time. He backed the reforms, and to circumvent Ritz he diminished the role and legal powers of the state superintendent. First he removed Ritz from the Education Employment Relations Board. He created the Center for Education and Career Innovation (CECI), which duplicated Ritz’s duties and those of her employees. A CECI internal paper even recommended replacing Ritz outright with a Pence appointee. After a public backlash, these efforts were abandoned and CECI was closed.

Regardless of whether we agree with Ritz, Pence’s willingness to brazenly restructure Indiana’s state educational institutions to marginalize an elected official he doesn’t like shows he is perfectly capable of bending democratic political norms when it suits his purposes. And what are those purposes? If we put these things together–the social conservatism, the rejection of free federal pre-K money, the willingness to starve the public schools and introduce vouchers–what do we get?

In combination, these positions strongly suggest that Mike Pence believes our public schools are some kind of secular propaganda outfit. It seems he wants to starve them into failure and gradually replace them with private schools. After all, private schools are legally free to proselytize.

The thing about Pence is that even though he cuts funding to education when there’s no reason to do so, he presents it as if it were just a matter of fiscal responsibility. He does it quietly. He tries to avoid drawing attention to himself, and he often succeeds. The nice thing about Donald Trump is that he is completely unsubtle. Everything Trump does is done loudly. If Trump tried to sneak up on you in a forest, you’d hear him coming from miles away. Every policy Trump tries to implement that we don’t like we get a clear opportunity to oppose, and because Trump cares more about being liked than about adhering to any comprehensive ideological position, we can often spook him off. Mike Pence? You won’t hear him coming. You won’t get a chance to resist. When you do make yourself heard, he’ll ignore you, because he gets his orders from God. Pence drinks the Kool-Aid. Trump just wants the Kool-Aid man to come to his birthday party.

In Indiana, we have a lot of problems, but a lot of our people don’t even know that Pence contributed to them. This is the most insidious thing about him–he creates a bad situation (crummy schools), and then he tells you he can solve it (privatization). He looks and sounds like a serious person. He’s not hard to believe. Donald Trump always sounds like he doesn’t know what he’s doing. His incompetence is visible at all times. This is why so many people want him out, why so many are willing to accept Pence. But Pence is much more dangerous, and it’s precisely the fact that we can’t always see it that makes it so. He’s a true believer and he’s sly. I wouldn’t help make him president if I were you. I’d stick with the loud guy who doesn’t know how the government works.