Commentary: Tea Party Success Gives Lesson for School Choice Efforts

Published March 22, 2011

For at least the past two decades, school choice initiatives have been limited programs designed either to benefit a small group of special needs children or to punish failing government schools.

No doubt these programs have given a few students opportunities they wouldn’t have had otherwise. But these programs touch the lives of only a tiny fraction of children—maybe 3 percent at best.

Moreover, the school choice movement itself has often been splintered, its successes have been minimal, and even some of its victories have been reversed, as happened in Florida and Washington, DC.

In short, school choice as defined today helps too few children, matters to too few taxpayers, and serves only to unite and mobilize choice opponents, particularly the teachers unions. That doesn’t seem to be a good way to expand the movement.

Four Factors
To the question of how a school choice movement can grow and thrive, we need to look to the Tea Party. A simple seed of an idea—Taxed Enough Already—rooted in a field of crisis spontaneously and rapidly grew into a mighty force to be reckoned with.

I see four factors at the heart of the Tea Party’s success:

  • Ordinary taxpayers realized  they had skin in the game. The response from voters was: This issue affects me personally. It’s about my life, my well-being, and my future.
  • Taxpayers reacted separately and spontaneously. They understood this affects me right now.
  • Taxpayers were motivated to do something. There was a sense that this affects me so profoundly that I can’t afford to sit on the sidelines.
  • The Tea Party’s message resonated so strongly among the broader electorate that many voters outside the Tea Party movement decided if these elected officials won’t vote for me, I won’t vote for them. Independent voters saw the issue as a conservative response to liberals’ reckless spending that they hated. It drew moderates and conservatives together in a winning coalition and sparked a dramatic political course correction in less than two years.

It’s About Spending
Could these factors be applied to the school choice issue?
I believe they can. In fact, I believe the school choice question is to state and local governments what taxed enough already is to the federal government, because it’s the same battle. It’s about government spending.

Many states and localities are in deep financial crisis—and one of the biggest pigs at their budgetary troughs is the public school system.

Public schools now consume at least one-third of all state government budgets, at least one-half of all local government budgets, and by Cato Institute estimates, 46 cents of every state and local tax dollar raised this year will go to feed the public schools.

Public school jobs, salaries, and benefits have exploded. Over the last decade, the private sector workforce increased a paltry 0.2 percent, while the public sector workforce grew by a whopping 9.2 percent.

Then there are state pension plans, underfunded by an estimated $3.5 trillion. These Cadillac benefit plans are putting many governments on a fast track to insolvency.

Liberals’ priority has always been the money, and that’s where conservatives must fight the school choice battle as well. Unions’ rallying cry over the years has been, “You can’t take money away from the public schools.” But times have changed, and taxpayers desperately need a less costly way to deliver public education services.

Public Education vs. Public Schools
Overlooked in the school choice debate is this fact: “Public education” and “public school” are not synonymous. Public education defines a policy objective, whereas public school describes one way to achieve it. Public schools are not the only way to deliver public education today.

Conservatives have a great case to make that school choice can cut in half taxpayers’ cost of educating a child.

Official estimates put the average public school spending at about $12,000 per student, but official estimates are notoriously unreliable. Adam Schaeffer at the Cato Institute did a wonderful study last year of school districts in the nation’s five largest metro areas. He reports real per pupil spending was 23 percent to 90 percent higher than what public schools reported they spent.

Solution to Spending Problems

School choice can grow stronger if we make the case that school choice is a solution to reckless and wasteful education spending—a case, incidentally, that fits perfectly with the “Taxed Enough Already” message. If taxpayers want to reduce spending and taxes at the state and local level, school choice is their ticket.

Of course, school choice benefits children and families, but it’s even more beneficial to taxpayers, from the 16-year-old earning his first paycheck to the 60-year-old paying local property taxes.

Big spending problems demand bold solutions. School choice is one such solution. The method may be different in each state—vouchers, tuition tax credits, scholarships—but all good choice plans will be universally available to every child; have no income or means-testing; and ensure funding follows the child regardless of where he or she is schooled.
Rahm Emanuel said, “You never want a serious crisis to go to waste.” When it comes to school choice, reformers would be wise to take his advice.

Lil Tuttle ([email protected]) is Education Director of the Clare Booth Luce Policy Institute in Herndon, Virginia. This article is adapted from remarks delivered at the 2011 Conservative Political Action Convention in Washington, DC.