What Will it Take to Convince Democrats That School Choice is a Worthy Endeavor?

Published February 8, 2022

During the 2020–21 school year, approximately 608,000 students used a voucher, tax-credit scholarship, or education savings account (ESA) to educate their children, according to policy experts Jason Bedrick and Ed Tarnowski. They wrote in August that as a result of the legislation enacted so far in 2021, at least 3.6 million additional students are eligible to participate in the new educational choice programs in seven states, and an additional 878,300 additional students will be eligible in 14 other states. In all, 22 states expanded or created school choice initiatives in 2021.

While this is certainly good news for the still small percentage of lucky families, there is a disturbing, though not exactly surprising reality. As detailed in a study released in the fall by researchers Jay Greene, James Paul, and Lindsey Burke, very few Democratic state legislators vote for school-choice proposals, “and the few that do almost never make a difference in whether those bills receive support of at least 50% of the legislators.” The researchers conclude, that the “empirical evidence is clear that the historical practice of courting Democratic policymakers has not been effective. Indeed, it has likely been counter-productive. Proponents of school choice should make a values-based appeal for choice that could attract more families, and elevate choice as a solution to some of the most pressing education policy fights of the day.”

It is no secret that the teachers unions are Choice Enemy #1, and are a big part of the problem in blue states. With only a handful of organized private schools nationwide, the unions are willing to spend big to advance their self-serving agenda, no matter how family-unfriendly it may be. And that outlay goes almost exclusively in one direction, of course. In 2020, the National Education Association contributed almost $15 million to candidates across the country, handing over 96% of it to Democrats. The American Federation of Teachers spent over $20 million, 99.6% of it going to Dems.

But a critical assessment of the unions’ talking points shows them to be bogus. For example, one of their standard rallying cries is that “voucher programs have their roots in discrimination and continue to foster it.” But as Greg Forster reports, ten empirical studies have examined private school choice programs on segregation, and nine found that the programs reduced it, while one found no visible difference. Not one showed that choice leads to racial discrimination. Additionally, a recent EdChoice poll shows that when given a fair description of school choice types, a great majority of minorities are in favor of it. In fact, 80% of Black and Hispanic parents support ESAs. So, four out of five minority parents approve of parental choice despite the unions’ insistence that it “fosters discrimination.” Also, on a historical note, researcher Phillip Magness writes, “As early as 1955, economists such as (Milton) Friedman began touting vouchers as a strategy to expedite integration.”

Similarly, research indicates that choice programs help establish and strengthen civic norms and practices. As reported by EdChoice, there have been 11 studies done on the subject, and six find that choice has a positive effect, while five show no effect. Not one study revealed that it had a negative effect on students’ civic values.

Another major union talking point is the zero-sum argument: that by giving parents help in escaping government-run schools, you are dooming the students who stay. But this, too, is fallacious. In fact, the opposite is true. A recent study examined 11 choice programs across eight states and D.C. Of the 26 studies examining the effects of choice programs on public school test scores, 24 have found positive effects, one study found no visible effect, and just one study found negative effects.

Another erroneous argument against choice is that it is costly for taxpayers. But a report released in November by Martin Lueken, Director of Fiscal Policy and Analysis at EdChoice, shows that through fiscal 2018, “educational choice programs generated fiscal benefits estimated between $12.4 and $28.3 billion. That’s between $3,300 and $7,500 for each student who participates in these programs.” Lueken concludes by positing, “It appears that private school choice programs are educating kids at half the cost of public schools.”

The frequently overwrought teacher union-led shutdowns because of Covid is a strong reason that Democrats should favor school choice. As Mark Brilliant and Steven Davidoff Solomon, two Berkeley professors, recently opined, “Covid Should Revive School Vouchers as a Liberal Cause.” They end their important piece, stating, “It’s time to revisit their liberal version of vouchers. During the pandemic the achievement gap expanded as the rich created pods, hired tutors, and moved to private schools or districts with open schools. Poor children suffered in ways that will last a lifetime. Vouchers are a liberal idea that should be adopted to give all parents equal opportunities to educate their children at the school of their choice. Surely, correcting the fundamental unfairness of a system that allows choice only for those with means is something conservatives and liberals can agree on.”

Perhaps Republican Glen Youngkin’s gubernatorial victory in mostly blue Virginia last November is portent of things to come. He tapped into parental outrage over school closures and the proliferation of Critical Race Theory by using the rallying cry “Parents Matter.” The loser was establishment Democrat Terry McAuliffe who was dismissive toward parents, stuck to the party line and lost.

Taking a cue from Virginia, GOP strategists see a great opportunity. “Parents being able to have a greater role in where and how their children are educated is a winning political issue, and we intend to promote it as much as possible in the coming year,” said South Carolina GOP Chair Drew McKissick. He adds that bills to advance school choice initiatives, like education savings accounts, are ready to go this legislative session and that the pandemic-spurred public school closures created the “clearest case I’ve seen for school choice in our lifetime.”

It is unknown how many Democrats will alter their strategy following the Virginia results.

Living in royal blue California, which houses the California Teachers Association – deemed “The Worst Union in America” – there is much more resistance to overcome, and we will soon be tested. Given the fact that so much of the state legislature is in the pockets of CTA, the only shot at establishing parental choice is via a proposition. To that end, there will be a comprehensive school choice initiative on the November 2022 ballot, pending a successful signature gathering effort. The last two times the Golden Staters faced choice on the ballot were in 1993 and 2000, and both propositions failed by a 70-30 margin. But times are different now, and there is no telling how the current version will play out.

It is incumbent upon all choicers to dispel the union-propagated myths and lies, and bang on the facts. Use the above data, and perhaps point out that “equity” demands that parents be empowered, and the opportunities for their children be maximized. No need to get on a soap box. Try one person at a time. Word will spread quickly. Use the “adopt a liberal” strategy coined by writer-comedian Evan Sayet. Or as writer-activist Rebecca Friedrichs suggests in a similar vein, “adopt a teacher.” If you are a Democrat in favor of choice, talk to your friends and send letters to your state representatives.

The centralization of educational power in our country must be ended. Schools are supposed to reflect the values of parents, not be over-regulated by big government bureaucrats and their very special interest teachers unions. As we celebrate National School Choice Week, it’s time to get busy!

First published at: Front Page Mag.

Photo by: Ryan Smithwright, Attribution 2.0 Generic (CC BY 2.0).