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New Poll Shows that Supporting School Choice Is Good Politics, Even for Democrats

This week the American Federation for Children released its sixth annual national
survey of likely voters and, not surprisingly, support for K-12 educational choice is up
once again across the country.

Frankly, it’s hard to see an issue today that has more bipartisan support and more
support across demographic and generational lines: Republicans (84%); Democrats
(57%), Independents (69%); Latinos (82%), African Americans (68%), Millennial/Gen Z
(71%); Generation X (69%), Baby Boomers (69%) and Silent Generation (66%).
Support for every form of school choice remains very strong among likely 2020 voters.
Support for Education Freedom Scholarships, Education Secretary Betsy DeVos’s
federal tax credit scholarship proposal, is at 78% and even higher among Latino and
African American voters at 83%.

Normally when politicians see numbers like these, there’s a rush to introduce and enact
new legislation to satisfy voter demand. Regrettably, that’s not the case when it comes to
expanding choice in K-12 education because of the stranglehold the teachers’ unions
have over too many Democratic policymakers and the unwillingness of too many
Republican policymakers to make educational choice a governing priority.

Furthermore, these survey results make watching this year’s presidential race quite
troubling, both because of the lack of attention paid to K-12 education and because of
how many Democratic candidates have denounced educational choice. According to our
survey, 48% of Democratic primary voters support educational choice, and yet Michael
Bloomberg and Andrew Yang are the only current Democratic candidates who have
voiced support for charter schools. Elizabeth Warren wants to eliminate critical federal
funding for charter schools and Bernie Sanders has called for a moratorium on charter
growth. Other candidates offer tepid support with a vow to make charters more like
clones of the traditional district schools that families left behind. Democratic governors
in Wisconsin, Illinois, North Carolina, and Virginia are actually trying to roll back
options for families.

The Trump Administration has shown support for educational choice—each budget the
President has submitted to Congress has included significant increases to expand
educational choice for America’s families. This year, Education Freedom Scholarships
legislation was introduced in Congress by Sen. Ted Cruz and Rep. Bradley Byrne, and
Republican Governors like Ron DeSantis in Florida, Doug Ducey in Arizona, and Bill
Lee in Tennessee have made school choice a governing priority. We hope other
governors, Republican and Democrat alike, will do so in 2020.

Yet there is no question where the voters stand, nor is there any question about whether
educational choice is a positive for American families and students. There have been
numerous studies over the past 20 years on private school choice programs, most of
which have been positive in terms of academic improvement and attainment. In Florida
for example, students participating in the tax credit scholarship program are up to 99% more likely to enroll in college and up to 56% more likely to obtain a four-year degree.

And, nationwide, public charter school students are graduating from college at three to
five times the national average for children from the lowest income families.
There is also no question about the urgent need for more and better educational options.
The 2019 National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), the nation’s report
card, told us that 65% of 4th graders and 66% of 8th graders are not reading at grade level.
America’s lackluster performance on international exams is also well documented, with
our nation ranking an average of 25th across Math, Science, and Reading. Less well
documented is the fact that America spends more than $3 billion a year to remediate
public high school graduates, driving up families’ costs for college education or workforce training.

None of this is to say that we don’t have thousands of outstanding district public schools
and tens of thousands of outstanding teachers educating those children. We do, and
around 82% of students are attending district public schools. But policymakers must
stop ignoring the fact that millions of children, particularly students of color from lower
income families, are getting the short of the end of stick. Too many are trapped in
schools not meeting their needs and there are clearly better options that would be
available to them if elected officials would only lead.

What’s more, expanding choice in K-12 education will help all families and students.
Research summaries from EdChoice have shown that in 24 of 26 studies, surrounding
public school students’ test scores improve when there are K-12 options available.
Supporting great public schools and supporting other options for families that want
them are not mutually exclusive.

Today, roughly 3.7 million students are educated in public charter schools or in private
schools through voucher, tax credit scholarship or education savings account programs.
Another 2.3 million are being home schooled. And the demand for more options is
abundant: even while 82% of children are otherwise attending district public schools,
our newest round of national polling shows that more than 50% of families would prefer
a different option.

It could not be more clear: America’s families want and deserve greater choice in K-12
education. This is something every policymaker should be fighting for because it’s good
policy and good politics.

What Do You Think?
John Schilling
John Schilling is President of the American Federation for Children, the nation’s largest school choice advocacy organization.

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