School Choice Unites GOP, Divides Democrats

Published July 25, 2016

While full-scale school choice emerged as a point of unity and a rallying cry during the Republican convention in Cleveland, the mechanics of choice limited strictly to within the governmental system roiled Democrats going into their convention in Philadelphia.

Progressives styling themselves opponents of so-called “corporate school reform” seized upon Hillary Clinton’s on-again, off-again support of public charter schools to place severe conditions on Democrats’ embrace of charters. At a July 12 pre-convention meeting in Orlando, a majority of the party’s platform committee inserted this anti-charter zinger, among others: “We believe that high-quality public charter schools should provide options for parents, but should not replace or destabilize traditional public schools.”  

Ponder that statement for a minute. On the one hand, you have charter schools stipulated to be of sterling quality, and on the other, you have conventional public schools described only as “traditional,” which doesn’t preclude the possibility (or likelihood) that they are dropout factories or worse.

For these “education advocates,” there are no circumstances under which a reform-minded school administration should close dismally failing schools and replace them with charters known to be well managed. Such protectionism for dumbed-down education serves the interests of teacher unions, which help bankroll the Democratic Party, but it fails to help students, including those from minority or low-income homes, achieve a quality education.

The platform drafters also leveled heavy fire at “high-stakes standardized tests”—the supposed second leg of the very same corporate education condemned by progressives. The amended platform opposed use of standardized test scores as a “basis for refusing to fund schools or to close schools, and the use of student test scores in teacher and principal evaluations.”

Furthermore, the convention platform goes so far as to support the right of parents to opt their children out of standardized testing, without either the families or the schools being penalized.

This decision to condemn mandated standardized testing is a bit of a stunner, because Democratic President Barack Obama’s Education Department has threatened schools with loss of federal funding if they fail to ensure that at least 95 percent of eligible students sit for the mandatory tests. The feds recognize no parental right to opt out.

Widespread opposition across the political spectrum to experimental Common Core testing helps explain this rare burst of Democratic support for parents’ rights. Nevertheless, the influential political action committee Democrats for Education Reform took heated exception to the twin slaps at charter schools and high-stakes testing. DER President Shavar Jeffries said the amended platform runs contrary not only to Obama’s education legacy but also to the conviction of civil-rights activists that believe “having clear academic performance benchmarks tied to school turnaround efforts is necessary to promote a more equitable education system.”

The significance of all this is Democrats are quibbling over how much to tame or curtail the only brand of school choice they support to any degree at all: charter schools. When allowed to veer from official orthodoxy, charters have helped many parents flee lousy schools. However, because charters are governmental entities, they are forever subject to re-regulation, as the Democrats’ debate illustrates.

For the first few days of their convention, Republicans failed to accentuate how their full support of private-choice options—from vouchers to tax-credit scholarships to education savings accounts—distinguishes the GOP from the Democrats. But then, in a move that brought the Republican convention delegates to their feet, Donald Trump Jr. hammered home the importance of freedom in education in his July 19 speech:

“You know why other countries do better on K through 12?” Trump Jr. said. “They let parents choose where to send their own children to school. That’s called competition. It’s called the free market. And it’s what the other party fears. They fear it because they’re more concerned about protecting the jobs of tenured teachers than serving the students in desperate need of a good education.”

In his July 21 convention acceptance speech, Donald Trump Sr. also gave a shout-out to school choice: “We will rescue kids from failing schools by helping their parents send them to a safe school of their choice.”

No doubt Trump’s strongest affirmation of school choice came with his selection of Mike Pence as his vice-presidential running mate. In Congress and as governor of Indiana, Pence has been a staunch advocate of both private- and charter-school choice. The person Hillary Clinton has tapped as her running mate, Virginia Sen. Tim Kaine, has opposed private-school choice as well as the expansion of charter schools in his home state, and like Clinton, he favors federal funding of preschool, a huge new entitlement.

On the issue of school choice, the difference between Clinton and Trump couldn’t be clearer.