The Furor Over Choice Isn’t Limited to Abortion
By Tressa Pankovits
This Independence Day, America doesn’t feel so free. The Supreme Court’s decision to overturn Roe v. Wade is already causing real harm to go along with the widespread anguish.
It’s also causing political fallout. At least three new congressional polls show support for Democrats is soaring. That’s good news for the Party, but it also offers a cautionary lesson.
While the marquee debate around choice leading up to November will center on reproductive choice, there are signs that more U.S. parents are rallying in favor of a different kind of choice: The right to choose the best school for their child. And, it’s not just parents. About 72% of registered voters support school choice.
In this debate, there’s increasing evidence that politicians wedded to the status quo — favoring traditional district schools where ZIP codes determine school assignment — are on the wrong side of the argument. This isn’t to suggest that school choice will drive voters to the polls with the intensity of the abortion debate, but Democrats willing to gamble with the passion parents feel for their children’s education could be committing an unforced error.
Last week, a Harris poll examined 5,000 parents of K-12 eligible students to determine the significance of education in the upcoming elections. A full 83% of parents agreed that education as a political issue is more important than it was in the past. Because the right to choose is meaningless without alternatives to traditional district schools, the poll also questioned parents on charter schools. Parents support public charter schools at a rate of 84%, even if their own children do not attend one. Three in four would consider choosing a public charter school if one was available.
If there is skepticism over the level of support for charter schools, especially in urban centers where charter school parents view them as a lifeline for their kids, consider a new report by Stanford University’s Center for Research on Education Outcomes (CREDO). The study focused on pre-pandemic student performance in Indianapolis. CREDO found that in the 2018–2019 school year, public charter school students learned the equivalent of 64 more days of instruction in reading and 116 days in math, compared to their district school peers. Black charter school students had even bigger gains, with 86 more days in reading and 144 days in math relative to Black students in district schools.
Outcomes such as these may account for why the Harris poll also found that roughly 80% of Republican and Democratic parents would cross party lines to vote for a candidate whose education stance most closely aligned with their own.
In light of this new information, Congressional Democrats should press the Biden administration to reconsider the wisdom — and the timing — of impending Department of Education (ED) regulations changes to the federal Charter School Program (CSP). As drafted, they will stunt the proliferation of public charter schools despite parents’ overwhelming appetite for them.
The backlash has been intense — especially for what would normally be an obscure administrative rule change. Thousands of parents wrote letters in protest. Hundreds traveled to Washington, D.C., from every corner of the country to deliver those letters and rallied in front of the White House.
They chose the White House because the sabotage of President Bill Clinton’s signature CSP, following decades of bipartisan support, is curious during a Democratic administration. Clinton and his successors recognized that it’s both a national economic and security imperative as well as a moral obligation to ensure that current and future generations have access to high quality education options. In the face of incontrovertible evidence that too many traditional school districts frequently fall down on the job of educating America’s youth, the CSP provides $400 million in federal grants annually to help establish public charter schools that can deliver high-quality alternatives.
As evidence of our education systems’ malaise, in 2020, just before the pandemic shuttered schools, the National Assessment of Education Progress (NAEP), administered its “long-term trends” test to nine and 13-year-old students across the country. The nine-year-old’s scores were flat — no growth — since the last test in 2012. Even worse, 13-year-olds experienced statistically significant drops of three and five points in reading and math, respectively. Black students dropped eight points and Hispanic students four points; widening their 2012 score gap with white students.
Achievement gaps in traditional district schools compared to increased growth in learning for students of color in many charter schools prompts countless Black and Brown parents, especially, to choose a public charter school. Low-income students of color disproportionally account for the nation’s charter school population — 60.1% in 2019–2020.
Imposing bureaucratic regulations to artificially limit free, open enrollment public charter schools means that more lower-income parents of color, priced out of private schools and affluent neighborhoods, must consign their children to whatever is on offer from the district — even if it’s terrible.
Both parties will work hard to get voters to the polls in November. Many will be parents of school age students. Democratic incumbents and hopefuls should push ED to slow its roll on choking off the option that gives school choice real meaning, if not because it’s the right thing to do, then because limiting the right to choose for no good reason doesn’t appear to be a winning political strategy this election season.
Tressa Pankovits is the Co-Director of the Reinventing America’s Schools Project at the Progressive Policy Institute.