For Republicans, School Choice is a Fight Worth Fighting

There are countless controversies hordes of hot-button issues being debated across college campuses. But what issue is most important to young adults in choosing which political candidate to support? Are most millennials and college students focused on issues that make big headlines, or are there other issues under the surface about which they care deeply.

We wanted to know. And so last year we asked. We put together a survey with forty different items and asked respondents to choose the issues that were most important to them when deciding whether or not to support a candidate. The top answer wasn’t necessarily a surprise, but it was nevertheless a revelation.

It found that by a wide margin “fixing failing public schools” was the issue that was most important to them. In some ways this should have been obvious. After all, many of the respondents, which ranged from ages 18 to 29, were just a few years removed from high school, and thus remain emotionally invested in the educational system in which they grew up. But it was an epiphany in that public education is a topic that barely gets mentioned in today’s political debates, much less ones that are aimed at attracting millennial voters.

That’s a shame.

Republicans have had great success in recent years pushing education reforms that are working to improve our stagnant academic outcomes. The best example is the Every Student Succeed’s Act, a bill that did away with one-size-fits-all federal accountability mechanisms, returned responsibility and accountability back to state and local leaders, and empowered parents with information about school performance.

Those types of ideas don’t attract much attention because they don’t generate much drama. Apparently, improving the educational experience of countless families doesn’t matter unless it fostered some controversy. If that’s the rule then so be it, let’s dig into an area of partisan disagreement: School choice.

In a recent speech to her union, American Federation of Teachers president Randi Weingarten attempted to paint those in favor of school choice as nothing more than a bunch of profiteers feeding off of a racist legacy.

“The real pioneers of private school choice were the white politicians who resisted school integration,” she argued, later calling such programs “only slightly more polite cousins of segregation.” She then urges the crowd to resist conservative’s “decades-long campaign to protect the economic and political power of the few against the rights of many,” before diving into an incredible metaphor that compares pro-school choice efforts as akin to Nazi genocide, apartheid and de jure segregation.

The spitefulness of the rhetoric is in direct proportion to the untruthfulness of the message. The facts fail Ms. Weingarten, and so she must turn to vitriol. Fortunately, as Eliot Kaufman writes for National Review, conservatives don’t have to just stand on the principle of parental choice, they can also rest on the laurels of evidence:

School choice helps low-income black and Hispanic children more than anyone else. In Florida’s private school-choice program, the largest in the nation, 68 percent of the 100,000 scholarship recipients are black or Hispanic. The average recipient’s household income is just $24,074. Ninety-seven percent of scholarship recipients in Washington, D.C.’s Opportunity Scholarship Program are minority students. Their average household income is just $21,434. The Louisiana Scholarship program has 88 percent minority enrollment. Need I go on?

Across the country, voucher and tax-credit programs are allowing low-income parents, many of them minorities, to choose better schools for their children. Wealthier families already have a range of choices. Public schools in wealthy areas tend to perform well. If they don’t, parents can often afford to pay expensive private-school tuition on their own. Poorer families, on the other hand, are unable to afford private schools and thus are held hostage by the inferior schools in their low-income school districts.

Unfortunately, Democrats have succeeded at branding school choice as a policy that only benefits children from wealthy households, thereby stranding poor kids in mediocre schools. In reality, one of the primary benefits of school choice is democratizing the ability of students from all races and backgrounds to attend a school of their choice. And it comes with the attendant benefit of enhanced educational outcomes. Numerous studies, including a recent report from Stanford University’s Center for Research on Educational Outcomes, found that charter school students outperform their traditional public school peers in math and reading.

If Republicans are looking for an issue that sits at the intersection of millennial interest and strong conservative policy, then school choice would be a great place to start. If our party is truly going to win the battle of ideas among today’s youth, then why not begin with an issue that expands educational options for poor families and improves academic outcomes?


Photo credit: Gage Skidmore