This Is the School Choice Moment. Will the GOP Screw It Up?

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In March, Sen. Rick Scott (R–Fla.) surprised many in Washington, D.C., by releasing an 11-point plan for what the GOP would do if the party retakes power in 2022, bucking Minority Leader Mitch McConnell’s preferred strategy of bashing the Democratic agenda without offering much in the way of specific alternative policies. Scott’s very first priority was education. “Our kids will say the pledge of allegiance, salute the Flag, learn that America is a great country, and choose the school that best fits them,” states action item one.

Much of the plan is standard red meat. But it’s telling that school choice has risen to the very top of the GOP agenda, even as the surrounding action items—highly specific demands for control over curriculum and classroom culture—betray a Republican approach that is at best selectively committed to the principle of maximizing parental choices. 

Regardless, Republicans clearly recall the exact moment—halfway through the gubernatorial debate on September 28, 2021—when Terry McAuliffe uttered the sentence that effectively ended his political career and ushered education to the top of the GOP agenda. “I don’t think parents should be telling schools what they should teach,” the Virginia Democrat said.

A little over a month later, Republican Glenn Youngkin triumphed, preventing McAuliffe from being elected to a nonconsecutive second term and setting off a frenzied effort among Democrats to understand how they could have possibly lost in Virginia—a state that President Joe Biden had won by 10 points just one year earlier.

First came a kind of denial that Virginia voters’ frustrations reflected real problems in the school system. Many progressive pundits accused Republicans of creating an issue—the teaching of critical race theory (CRT) in schools—out of whole cloth. CRT, an academic theory about the pervasiveness of racism in society, may hold sway in many graduate programs, but it is hardly taking over middle schools, these pundits insisted. The issue of “education,” declared MSNBC host Joy Reid on the night of the election, placing air quotes around the word, “is code for ‘White parents don’t like the idea of teaching about race.'”

In fact, concerned parents can point to many school curriculum battles where the fight is not whether to “teach about race,” but whether to indoctrinate students into a race-totalizing framework. It’s not only white parents who dislike this; in one California high school where an “ethnic studies” course was required, half the Hispanic students were failing it. According to their English teacher, the kids hated the class.

Perhaps Virginia voters would have cared less about school curriculums if COVID-19 hadn’t forced so many parents into the role of supervising their kids during the virtual school day. The pandemic kept the education system closed far longer than many other institutions, and the publicly exercised political power of the teachers unions meant that most families understood the reason their favorite restaurant was open but their child’s kindergarten was not.

By now it is widely acknowledged, even in liberal circles, that the public education system’s pandemic-era failures drove many independent voters and moderate Democrats into the arms of the GOP in 2021. And what worked in Virginia could work elsewhere in 2022: Frustration with woke school boards and with Randi Weingarten, the single-minded head of the American Federation of Teachers, might be palpable enough for many non-Republicans to overlook their distaste for former President Donald Trump. Executing much-needed education reform could deliver the Republican Party back into the good graces of moderate suburbanites.

The right policy approach is well known to Republican politicians: For decades, free market think tanks have produced volumes on how to expand school choice so that more families can exercise greater control over their educational options. By allowing charter schools to grow and experiment, and by letting students claim the public funds invested into the system in their name and take those dollars elsewhere, such reforms contain a liberatory promise—one that solves the curriculum and closure issues without turning school board meetings into war zones.

Will Republicans approach this moment with the clarity of purpose it deserves? Or will they be distracted by a different approach—one that asks state legislatures to micromanage what is taught in classroom?

There is significant evidence that dissatisfaction with the school system tipped the governor’s race to Youngkin.

In the weeks before the election, a series of controversies in Virginia’s Loudoun County Public Schools, close to D.C., became national news. After a sexual assault in a bathroom at Stone Bridge High School, the victim’s father assailed officials at a June 22 school board meeting for not doing more to protect students. He became unruly, and police dragged him out of the meeting, bloodied and handcuffed. That incident persuaded many parents that the district was ignoring reasonable criticisms—especially after the alleged perpetrator reportedly assaulted another student at another school.

Parents also had good reason to think the school board had grown not merely indifferent to their needs, but actively hostile. A Facebook group, “Anti-Racist Parents of Loudoun County,” attracted notoriety for compiling lists of families resisting the district’s racial diversity and equity efforts; six of the nine members of the school board turned out to be involved in the group. That agenda included changes to the district’s admissions policies for elite high schools. In practice, this meant deprioritizing standardized testing and GPAs, which had the effect of punishing Asian and Indian immigrant students who excelled at these metrics.

“A lot of immigrant families came here specifically for the school system,” an Indian-American Loudoun County parent told the independent reporter Matt Taibbi. “When you start messing with that and say we don’t have a say, that’s when people who’ve always voted Democratic will flip on them.”

Any frustrations parents had with specific school policies were magnified a thousandfold by the pandemic. For months, school closures forced parents to take responsibility for watching and managing their kids during the school day, a tall order for many working families.

When Anvil Strategies, a Democratic polling firm, asked suburban women who had switched from Biden to Youngkin to explain their vote, they decisively pointed to school closures. “They asked us to do all this work for months, and then [McAuliffe] says it’s none of our business now,” one respondent said.

Danny Barefoot, a Democratic political operative who observed one of Anvil’s focus groups, says that school closures emerged again and again as a poisonous issue for McAuliffe. “There’s no real way to look at Youngkin’s performance in the Northern Virginia suburbs and not conclude there was a seismic shift,” Barefoot says. “Our research showed that shift was primarily driven by voters deeply unhappy with Democrats’ education policy.”

Republicans clearly capitalized on the shift. In 2020, Biden won Loudoun County with 62 percent of the vote versus Trump’s 37 percent. In 2022, McAuliffe only won the county 55 to 44 percent for Youngkin. Statewide, the defectors added up to a Youngkin victory.

Even before all this dissatisfaction broke out, the school choice movement had been gaining steam for several years. Corey A. DeAngelis, director of research at the American Federation for Children (AFC), keeps track of school choice bills introduced in the state legislatures. (DeAngelis was previously a policy analyst at Reason Foundation, the nonprofit that publishes this magazine.) As of February, 30 states had at least one bill on the table that would “fund students instead of systems,” he reports.

“The majority of these states have education savings account bills instead of vouchers or tax credits,” DeAngelis says. “They are introducing the best type of school choice.”

Education savings accounts (ESAs) have become the gold standard for the school choice movement. Whereas vouchers and tax credits divert some funds from the school system to the child—or give families tax breaks for taking advantage of different options—ESAs establish that the child rather than the school should be the primary beneficiary of public funds.

Public education is funded on a per-pupil basis: Schools receive a certain amount of money for each student. While the details vary from state to state, ESAs typically allow families to enroll their child in a school of their choice and use some or all of their per-pupil funding to help cover the tuition. They can also spend the money on other much-needed educational resources, like tutoring services.

In Arizona, for instance, the ESA program pays out about 90 percent of the per-pupil amount: about $6,400 per child per year. To qualify for the program, families must meet certain characteristics, such as having a parent in the military, being low-income, or residing in a district with a failing school.

Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey, a Republican, is currently attempting to expand the program; he has vowed to sign any school choice bill that comes across his desk. In February, the state’s Republican-controlled Senate approved a bill that would make roughly 85 percent of Arizona public school students eligible for ESAs. It’s expected to face greater challenges in the state House, where a few Republicans have previously sided with Democrats who are skeptical of expanding ESAs, though it’s possible the pandemic has changed their thinking.

“COVID has changed everything,” state Sen. Paul Boyer (R–Glendale), the bill’s sponsor, said when he introduced it. “I’ve heard from parents across the state desperate to get their kids into a healthy educational environment.”

Other states considering similarly far-reaching ESA expansions include Georgia and Wisconsin. South Dakota raised the cap on the state’s tax credit program from $2 million to $3.5 million and opened up the program to children in foster care. Iowa’s Republican governor, Kim Reynolds, has championed a bill that would create an ESA program in that state, though she faces opposition in the House.

A few school choice bills are specifically tied to COVID-19, with ESAs that kick in only if public schools shut down or require masks. That’s true of Tennessee’s bill, and it’s also true of the Kids in Classes Act, a piece of national legislation sponsored by Sen. Tim Scott (R–S.C.). While the thinking behind these bills is understandable, they aren’t a great approach: Rather than making ESAs contingent upon some criterion or threshold being reached, it’s vastly preferable for legislators to simply extend the program to as many families as possible and let them decide whether to participate. The Support Children Having Open Opportunities for Learning (SCHOOL) Act, supported by Sen. Rand Paul (R–Ky.) and Rep. Chip Roy (R–Texas), takes that path: It establishes that public education funds should go to students rather than schools.

There are encouraging signs that some previously skeptical legislators on the Democratic side are embracing school choice. Georgia’s H.B. 999, which would establish a fairly universal ESA program, is co-sponsored by three Republicans and three Democrats. One of those Democrats, state Rep. Patty Bentley, previously opposed school choice measures. And in North Carolina, Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper joined National School Choice Week for the first time this year.

When the omicron wave of COVID-19 receded in February, nearly all schools in the U.S. were fully open. While mask mandates have stuck around in some stubborn municipalities—D.C. was still requiring students to wear masks indoors as of March, and New York City kept masks for schoolchildren 5 years and younger—the overwhelming majority of schools are finally getting back to normal. As pandemic-related restrictions diminish, curriculum controversies will constitute a larger share of school issues.

These issues, unfortunately, sometimes draw Republican attention away from school choice and toward less helpful policies. Numerous state legislators, for example, have responded to concerns about CRT by proposing bans on “divisive concepts.” Under Ohio’s H.B. 327, for example, “No school district shall teach, instruct, or train any divisive concepts, nor shall any school district require a student to advocate for or against a specific topic or point of view to receive credit for any coursework.”

Those “divisive concepts” are defined in a variety of ways, but these bills are basically aimed at the ideas now being described as CRT. (In these debates, the term CRT usually covers much more than the academic ideas advanced under the “critical race theory” banner.) The language of these bills is often so broad that it could chill any discussion of tough subjects. And one of these bills, Florida’s H.B. 7, applies not just to K-12 education but to colleges and universities, where students and professors have a clear-cut First Amendment right to explore divisive concepts.

“This sort of viewpoint-based discrimination is flatly unconstitutional,” notes the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education’s Tyler Coward.

Another Florida bill—H.B. 1557, whose opponents have nicknamed it the “Don’t Say Gay” bill—would forbid teaching about gender and sexuality in the classroom. One earlier version of the bill required school officials to out students to their parents if they learned the kids were gay or transgender. Florida’s Republican governor, Ron DeSantis, signed the bill into law on March 28.

It is generally a bad idea for state legislatures to micromanage what gets taught in middle school classrooms. And it’s a waste of energy too. Such laws almost invariably draw Republicans into bitter court fights—and even if they survive legal scrutiny, there’s no guarantee they will work as planned.

“It can take up political capital to use your time to advance these bills that don’t even achieve the stated goal of banning concepts you don’t like because of implementation issues,” DeAngelis says. “School choice is a better option, because you can sort to schools that better align to your interests and provide competition to public schools.”

Some parents don’t want their kids learning “divisive concepts” related to race or sexuality. Other parents might think bills like “Don’t Say Gay” go too far but do not want their kids exposed to fraught political concepts at too young an age. And many parents like things just the way they are. School choice accommodates all of those parents at once: Families would be able to take the money, choose the school whose approach they like best, and enroll their kid there. That leaves little reason to legislate what all schools must teach or what all kids must learn.

Both Youngkin and his lieutenant governor, Winsome Sears—a Jamaican immigrant and former appointee to the Virginia State Board of Education—want to increase the number of charter schools in the state and also make ESAs available to more families.

“We need to have good schools for all children in all communities, and all ZIP codes,” Sears wrote in a recent column. “We need to return power to all parents. We need to give all children more opportunities.”

There’s every reason to believe that independents and moderate Democrats would reward governors and state legislatures all over the country for making school choice a top priority. According to recent polling from the AFC, a majority of Democratic voters support school choice. While the state level is where most of the work must be done, figures seeking national office would be well-advised to take a page from the Youngkin playbook as well.

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