In August 2022, I suggested that Republicans should make education reform a campaign issue. That certainly holds today, but if traditional parents are trapped in a school district that is immersed in all the au courant education fads, and school choice is not an option, they very well may be stuck. With that scenario in mind, school choice, whose era has arrived – in force – must become a campaign priority in every state where there is no educational freedom.
While this is an election off-year, with very few Senate or Congressional seats in play, many important state elections will be decided next month. For example, all 80 seats in the New Jersey General Assembly and the 40 seats in the State Senate are in play.
The National School Choice Week Foundation reported in early September that a record 19 states have said “yes” to expanding school choice in 2023. But that number can now be amended to 20, as North Carolina has just come on board, becoming the tenth state to approve universal school choice. Roy Cooper, the state’s Democratic Gov., says he won’t veto the bill passed by the legislature, not because he is in favor of it, but because Republicans have enough votes to override. Yes, the same Roy Cooper who, in May, released a video declaring a state of emergency. “It’s clear,” he nonsensically claimed that “the Republican legislature is aiming to choke the life out of public education.”
Not surprisingly, polls indicate that school choice is a winning issue. An array of recent surveys – many commissioned by Democrats – show that choice is popular. As a result, the Dems have lost ground and credibility on K-12 school issues, which they have long dominated with voters.
As The 74’s Kevin Mahnken notes, the polls “were released by interest groups representing opposite ends of the center-left public policy spectrum … but both point to an electorate that is increasingly skeptical of the Democratic education brand and open to Republican counter-proposals.”
Mahnken adds that 47% of respondents said they trusted Republicans to handle public education today, compared with just 43% who trusted Democrats. And the gap widened among parents, who favored Republicans by nine points.
Yes, parents especially are in favor of choice, according to another poll from earlier this year. Conducted by YouGov, this survey gathered respondents’ views on ESAs, a program giving families access to state education funds to pay for various approved services, such as private school tuition, instructional materials, and tutoring, and found that 59.7% support ESAs, while just 14.6% were opposed, while 25.7% were undecided.
The same survey found that 67.5% of Democrats, compared to 61.3% of Republicans, favor ESAs. Additionally, support for ESAs is decisive among Black parents, with 70.3% in favor of the program.
Some Democrats are aware of the trend to embrace choice and are beginning to adjust their strategy. Jorge Elorza, CEO of Democrats for Education Reform, asserts, “We’ve lost our advantage on education because I think that we’ve failed to fully acknowledge that choice resonates deeply with families and with voters.”
Illinois is a deep blue state that has had a choice program since 2017. But the Invest in Kids program, which provides state-sponsored private school scholarships to disadvantaged students, is due to expire at year’s end. Sensing the zeitgeist and ignoring the Chicago Teachers Union’s opposition, Democratic Gov. J.B. Pritzker has agreed to support extending the program.
School choice is also on the move in swing states. In August, Ohio lawmakers passed legislation that enables all families to be eligible for scholarship money for private schooling. Pennsylvania Governor Josh Shapiro, a liberal Democrat – and private school product – has been leading the charge to get a voucher program in the Keystone State.
The prime enemies of choice are, of course, the teachers unions, which spend untold sums of money to kill it everywhere they can. In Nebraska, the National Education Association state affiliate is part of Support Our Schools, a coalition that created a petition to repeal the state’s new Opportunity Scholarships Act. Republican Governor Jim Pillen signed the bill into law in May, which grants up to $25 million in tax credits to those who donate money to private schools in the state.
It must be noted that the roots of school choice were bipartisan. Back in 1990, the Pleistocene Era of education reform, the Milwaukee Parental Choice Program became the nation’s first publicly funded school choice program for low-income children. Born of an interesting political marriage – Democratic state legislator Polly Williams and Republican Governor Tommy Thompson – the program started as a way to address the city’s troubled education system.
There is still much political work to be done, but at least the arrows are now pointing in the right direction. It’s about time.
Larry Sand, a former classroom teacher, is the president of the non-profit California Teachers Empowerment Network – a non-partisan, non-political group dedicated to providing teachers and the general public with reliable and balanced information about professional affiliations and positions on educational issues.