April 19, 2024


Science It Works

School Choice Is a Smart Political Move

Fans of educational freedom in Iowa are doing a victory lap after school choice advocates cleaned up in GOP primaries. The results are a win for those who want families to decide where and how their children learn, and also point to a positive strategy in an otherwise toxic political environment. Amid a storm of stupid culture-war memes and finger-pointing, proposals for charter schools, homeschool freedom, education savings accounts, and vouchers are upbeat and attractive alternatives.

“I might as well come out and say it,” State Rep. Dennis Bush (R–Cherokee) complained when Gov. Kim Reynolds endorsed a primary challenge against him. “The governor is trying to use this election as a referendum for her voucher bill.”

Reynolds agreed, describing Zach Dieken, the ultimately successful candidate she endorsed against Bush, as “a strong advocate for freedom, parental choice in education, and the pro-life movement.”

The governor gambled on supporting challengers to her own party’s sitting legislators after they killed her proposal to let education money follow up to 10,000 Iowa students to the schools of their choice instead of subsidizing government institutions without regard for family preferences. 

“Four challengers she endorsed won their primaries, including a challenger to the chairman of the House education committee who fought her bill,” The Wall Street Journal editorial board noted. “Other school-choice candidates running for open seats also won, several with Ms. Reynolds’s endorsement. Eight House candidates backed by the American Federation for Children Action Fund, which supports school-choice candidates, won their races. A ninth race, for a Senate seat, is headed to a recount.”

Arizona is another hopeful venue for school choice proposals.

“I just introduced legislation to provide every Arizona child the ability to go to the school of their family’s choice,” State Rep. Ben Toma (R–Peoria), the House majority leader, announced on June 14. 

Like the Iowa proposal, Arizona’s HB 2853 would dedicate money to educating students where they choose rather than just funneling it to government schools. The bill has 26 co-sponsors.

“HB 2853 expands eligibility for the Arizona Empowerment Scholarship Account (ESA) program to every family in the state,” according to the Phoenix-based Goldwater Institute. “Families who participate would receive over $6,500 per year per child for private school, homeschooling, ‘learning pods,’ tutoring, or any other kinds of educational service that would best fit their students’ needs outside the traditional public school system.”

Arizona is already fertile soil for education options, but expanding the scholarship program would further establish choice as the norm rather than keeping public schools as the default. A similar proposal passed in 2018, but was beat back by a confusingly framed ballot measure pushed by opponents of education freedom despite polling indicating plurality support for choice.

In recent years, government-run schools lost what luster they had as they fumbled distance-learning in response to COVID-19, canceled classes without warning, and hosted battles over masking and politicized lessons. Pandemic policy is fading as an issue, but that just made room for more fighting over who gets to spin the lessons that kids are taught. Conservatives want kids taught traditional views of gender and sexuality, while the left pushes racialized lessons on young minds. When parents protest, politicians associated with the educational establishment lash out.

“I don’t think parents should be telling schools what they should teach,” Democratic gubernatorial candidate Terry McAuliffe huffed on his way to getting beat by Glenn Youngkin (R) in Virginia’s 2021 election.

“Youngkin won by tapping into culture war fights over school curricula, emphasizing parental rights to make decisions about their children’s education with the slogan, ‘parents matter,'” the AP observed.

Smart Democrats won’t let this remain a partisan issue; Colorado Gov. Jared Polis (D) (recently interviewed by Reason) is among the too-rare members of his party who supports choice and defends the independence of charter schools against federal intrusion. That’s wise because interest in exiting chaotic public schools isn’t going away.

Polls find that between two-thirds and three-quarters of respondents consistently support giving “parents the right to use the tax dollars designated for their child’s education to send their child to the public or private school which best serves their needs.” As of May 2022, 72 percent of school parents favor vouchers, 76 percent support education savings accounts, and 71 percent favor charters, according to surveys by Morning Consult for EdChoice. Support for choice has been strong for years but combined with escalating curriculum wars and public-school failures during the pandemic, that created a welcoming environment for choice proposals even before Youngkin and McAuliffe duked it out.

“All told, seven states created new programs this year, while 11 more expanded existing options,” Education Next‘s Alan Greenblatt noted last August. He scored wins across the country for education savings accounts, tax-credit programs, and scholarships.

Inevitably, choice advocates suffered some failures. Not only did Iowa’s governor have to overcome opposition from within her own party to advance her proposal, but a plan for education savings accounts stumbled in Alabama while vouchers suffered a similar fate in Oklahoma. While the case for educational freedom may be growing more compelling to the public, its opponents haven’t disappeared.

But Iowa choice advocates demonstrated that the people telling pollsters they support education options are willing to vote that way, just as they did last November in Virginia. That points the way to a much more interesting midterm election campaign than we’ll get from endless fights over drag queen story hours or which major political party is more a threat to the republic than the other. In fact, choice could settle some conflicts by letting parents choose which reading hours their kids attend and what they’re taught about politics.

Imagine resolving fights over school policy and curricula by enrolling your children in the schools that share your values while your neighbors make different choices of their own!

American politics are stupid right now, largely consumed by silly issues that represent a dozen different ways to scream “I hate your tribe!” School choice is a smart issue that can win with voters while lowering the pressure on social tensions that threaten to tear the country apart. With educational freedom at stake, these midterm elections have the potential to defy the odds and actually be constructive.