After making incremental progress for three decades, the school-choice movement is now rapidly achieving massive victories across the country. A key factor in this sudden success is the adoption of a new strategy to highlight the gap between the values that parents espouse and what’s going on in public schools.
In the early days of the movement, new programs were adopted infrequently and were designed to serve very few students. Wisconsin launched a voucher program in Milwaukee in 1990, serving only a few hundred students, but it wasn’t until 1996 that Ohio began a voucher program in Cleveland, and that one served only a few thousand students.
Programs spread around the country through the 2000s and 2010s but, with a few notable exceptions, mostly in dribs and drabs. It wasn’t until 2021 that West Virginia adopted the first universal, publicly funded education-choice policy, followed quickly by Arizona in 2022.
Now, just a few weeks into this year’s legislative session, we’ve already seen Iowa and Utah pass universal education-choice programs. Passage of similar universal programs this year seems likely in Arkansas, Florida, Indiana, Ohio, Oklahoma, and Texas. Several additional states also appear poised to adopt choice policies that would have received a great deal of attention in previous years but are being overshadowed by the cascade of universal programs.
How did the school-choice movement toil for almost three decades without passing a single universal program, only to see between four and a dozen universal programs become law in less than two years?
Many factors contributed to increasing the rate of progress from a ripple to a wave, including the compounding effects of past efforts and the status quo–breaking trauma of the pandemic. But a key explanation for the current success of the school-choice movement is a switch in political strategy among some of its influential leaders.
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For many years, the political strategy for expanding school choice was built around claims about justice and efficiency. Advocates noted that it was unjust that low-income, minority students were too often trapped in failing public schools, while more advantaged, white families could more easily flee to higher-quality suburban public schools or afford private-school tuition.
These arguments were largely targeted toward Democratic legislators with larger minority constituencies. At the same time, advocates emphasized the efficiency of expanding choice and competition for improving academic achievement. These arguments were targeted toward Republican legislators with more business constituents who were concerned about the capabilities of their prospective workforce.
The hope was that the justice-based arguments would appeal to enough Democratic representatives, who would join with Republicans motivated by efficiency or ideological concerns to form majorities able to pass significant school-choice legislation. The fact that Democratic support almost never actually made the difference in passing new choice bills, nor produced any universal school-choice policies, somehow did not dissuade choice advocates from continuing to invest heavily in this strategy for almost three decades.
But some within the school-choice movement grew frustrated with the glacial rate of progress and formulated a new strategy. The justice and efficiency arguments were good and true claims, but they failed to recognize the political constraints that teachers’ unions place on the vast majority of elected Democrats. The organization and resources that the unions can muster in Democratic primaries simply could not be countered by appealing to low-income minority constituents, even if choice advocates could succeed in persuading them to abandon representatives who attend to their interests on a host of other issues.
The new school-choice advocacy strategy that is yielding huge gains focuses on passing universal programs in red states. All four universal school-choice programs enacted so far were supported almost exclusively by Republicans, and the best prospects for additional universal programs this year are all in states with Republican governors and legislatures.
The main opposition to these programs in Republican-dominated states has come from rural superintendents, who remind their representatives that the local public school is often the largest employer in small towns. They threaten that anything that undermines the biggest industry in their district is politically dangerous for rural legislators.
The solution to this political challenge is to help inform and organize families in suburban and rural areas who are concerned about the kinds of values their children are being taught in public schools. Radical academic content and school practices are not confined to large urban school districts on the coasts. Even in small towns across America’s heartland, public-school staffs have become emboldened to impose values on students that are strongly at odds with those preferred by parents.
Whether it’s placing biological males in the girls’ bathrooms and locker rooms, calling children by pronouns that differ from their sex behind parents’ backs, or teaching a radical and ahistorical ideology that condemns America as irredeemably racist and divides people into “oppressors” and “the oppressed,” public schools are breaking faith with the families they are supposed to serve.
Parents have taken notice. Groups of concerned parents such as Parents Defending Education and Moms for Liberty have been organizing and fighting back. Through legal action, PDE has succeeded in forcing school districts to abandon policies that unconstitutionally divide students along racial lines and has exposed schools that are pushing radical ideology in the classroom. In its first election cycle, Moms for Liberty endorsed more than 270 school-board candidates. More than 60 percent won.
Legislators facing organized groups of parents who want alternatives to the values promoted by public schools can be peeled away from the grip of teachers’ unions and rural superintendents. This social-values-based argument can attract enough representatives to join with those ideologically committed to educational freedom to form winning coalitions in red states.
We know that this new school-choice political strategy is working not only because we are witnessing such a rapid acceleration in choice victories. We also know this strategy is effective because legislators are making the social-values arguments when they vote for these programs.
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For example, Iowa state senator Jesse Green described his support for the adoption of a universal choice program as motivated by the belief that “Iowans deserve to have their children educated without violating their values.” He added, “In some schools, it is policy that individuals can use the public-school bathroom that aligns with a person’s gender identity rather than their undeniable biology. If we can’t trust some of our public schools on biology in the bathroom, what makes us believe that we can trust those same schools on biology in the classroom?”
Iowa’s senate president, Amy Sinclair, championed passage of universal education-savings accounts by arguing that parents “have a right to educate their children in a way that supports their value systems.” She noted how the values being promoted in too many of Iowa’s public schools were out of sync with those of parents: “We empower the parents to make an educational choice for their children that best suits the needs of the child and the educational direction that that family deserves. The contents of this bill are what should happen when the institutions created by our government overstep their bounds and the trust bestowed upon them for care of children.”
This new political strategy for expanding education choice is not a cynical ploy for short-term gain. Education should rightly be seen as an extension of parenting. It is just part of all of the efforts that families make to raise their children to be decent and productive adults.
Emphasizing that parents need to be empowered with options to ensure that their children’s education aligns with their own values doesn’t just sway legislator votes, it is also the right thing for strengthening families. Allowing different families to select among educational options that serve different values is also essential for promoting diversity and harmony in our pluralistic society.
Parental choice has always been at the heart of the school-choice movement. Parents care about much more than optimizing test scores; they often care even more about the values with which their children are educated.
Making this connection between education and family values the focus of the choice movement’s political strategy is not only yielding a string of huge policy victories. It’s also placing the moral imperative of parental choice at the center of our efforts. And that’s translating into some much-needed victories.
This piece originally appeared in The National Review