The first major victory of the modern school choice movement came from a bipartisan effort, when Minnesota Democratic state Rep. Annette Polly Williams introduced legislation in 1990 to create the Milwaukee Parental Choice voucher program. Her bill was eventually signed into law by Republican Gov. Tommy Thompson and found support among civil rights leaders, as well as conservative and libertarian groups.
Unfortunately, three decades later, legislative support for school choice is much less bipartisan—even though it’s more popular among voters today than it’s ever been.
A recent Morning Consult poll found that 71% of Americans and 77% of parents of school-aged children support K-12 education savings accounts that allow families to use state education funding to customize their child’s education.
Many state leaders have been listening to these voters. Last year, 19 states enacted 32 new or expanded education choice policies, and this year, Arizona expanded its ESA policy to all students. Notably, all of these policies were implemented by Republicans.
One might expect the popular support for school choice to have spurred increased political support among both parties, especially since 70% of Republican voters and 76% of Democratic voters express support for ESAs. Yet, with some notable exceptions, elected Democrats overwhelmingly oppose school choice.
Meanwhile, the GOP has firmly embraced the concept to bolster its claim to be the parents’ party. A recent analysis found that, in the 70 votes taken from 1990 to 2021 on stand-alone school choice legislation, 85% of state House Republicans and 88% of state Senate Republicans voted in favor of the bills. Only 17% of state House Democrats and 24% of state Senate Democrats supported the measures. On 28 occasions, the legislation passed a chamber without a single Democratic vote.
This shouldn’t come as a surprise. Although most rank-and-file Democratic voters, especially minorities, support school choice, the teachers unions have outsize sway in Democratic Party politics due to their formidable fundraising and grassroots capabilities. Those who cross the unions by supporting school choice risk facing a well-funded primary opponent.
That’s not to say the GOP has been uniformly supportive. Numerous red states, including Idaho, North Dakota, and Texas, lack any private school choice policies; several others have only small programs. In the last two years, promising ESA bills were defeated in Georgia, Idaho, Oklahoma, South Carolina, Utah, and several other red states.
In these red states, where Democrats rarely control the state legislatures, the teachers unions and other anti-school choice groups spend considerable resources to elect anti-school choice Republicans. Thus far, they’ve stalled the advance of school choice in several states.
But that appears to be changing. In the Tennessee GOP primaries earlier this month, a Tennessee teachers union threw its support behind 10 Republican candidates. Nine of them lost. In Arizona, all three GOP legislators who had voted against expanding the state’s ESAs earlier this year lost their primaries. In Iowa , after her signature ESA bill passed the state Senate but failed in the House, Gov. Kim Reynolds backed nine pro-school choice candidates in GOP primaries, including several challengers to anti-school choice incumbents. Eight of the nine won.
Likewise, in GOP primaries in Arkansas, Georgia, Idaho, Kentucky, and Texas, school choice has emerged as a litmus test issue. In the next legislative session, Republican caucuses are poised to be even more supportive of school choice than before.
At the same time, Democrats’ long-standing political advantage on education is rapidly eroding. Just five years ago, a Gallup survey found that Democrats enjoyed a 19-point advantage. But a recent poll commissioned by the American Federation of Teachers found that voters in seven key battleground states were slightly more likely to say they had greater confidence in Republicans (38%) than Democrats (37%) on education issues. As the GOP burnishes its pro-parent credentials, voters are undergoing a tectonic transformation as to which party they trust on education.
The AFT’s own poll provides proof that its preferred policies are political poison. As school choice advocate Corey DeAngelis observed in the Wall Street Journal, respondents were 5 percentage points more likely to blame Democrats than Republicans for “politicizing education (and making education too much a part of the culture war)”; were more dissatisfied than satisfied with “the amount of say that parents have in what their children are taught”; and expressed significantly more confidence in parent organizations (56%) than teachers unions (44%).
It is a time for choosing. Republicans are choosing to be the parents’ party, while Democrats are still embracing the unions that have lost the confidence of parents as they become increasingly radical and disconnected from parental concerns.
As voter preferences shift, so can political alliances. If voters reward parent empowerment and punish politicized classrooms, Democrats may find it in their long-term political interest to court parents as well. If so, we could see a new era of bipartisan support for parental choice in education.
This piece originally appeared in the Washington Examiner