There is no greater coalition issue in America today than school choice. Seventy-one percent of likely voters support it, meaning that more people approve of school choice than of America itself.
A whopping 82% of Republican adults favor school choice, as do 68% of Democrats, according to RealClear Opinion Research. If there is anything the public can agree on, it is this. So why isn’t nationwide school choice a reality already?
Perhaps we ought to ask white liberals, whose opposition to school choice is as predictable as it is absurd.
Though most Democrats support school choice, that support comes overwhelmingly from black and Hispanic Democrats. In fact, white adults of all political persuasions are substantially more likely to oppose charter schools, vouchers, and tax credits than black and Hispanic adults, according to polling data from Education Next.
I saw this white liberal opposition in action during the Trump administration when I served as the Department of Education’s press secretary under Betsy DeVos, the department head at the time. At a majority-black private school in Milwaukee, predominantly white protesters rallied outside, waving teachers’ union signage, in opposition to the very kind of school choice program that let the minority children inside escape failing public schools.
Outside a Detroit public charter school that also serves a majority black population, the protesters were loud enough to attract the attention of some of the students inside. Three girls in a near-empty school hallway huddled together, chatted intently with each other, and then asked me what was going on. No one was mad at them, I said; it was only a political disagreement among adults. Judging by the looks on the three young faces staring back at me, I was less than convincing. Whatever message those protesters had wanted to send to us, they sent one much worse to the students: You shouldn’t be allowed to go to this school.
Decades ago, ignorant, racist people stood on public schoolhouse steps and refused to let minority children inside. That sentiment still exists today among opponents of school choice. And yet those who most loudly protest against increasing educational options for disadvantaged families often take advantage of the many options out there themselves, sending their children to private schools while denying low-income parents who can’t afford them the same opportunity.
Let’s be explicit about the fate to which these anti-school choicers would sentence the low-income students in inner cities: In Milwaukee, only 16% of eighth graders are proficient readers, and 11% are proficient in math, according to the most recent Nation’s Report Card data. In Detroit, the scores are even worse: 6% of eighth graders are considered proficient in reading, and only 5% are proficient in math.
The statistics are bleak in the major cities, but the failure of public schools is by no means confined to urban or underresourced areas. Nationwide, only 36% of public high school seniors are proficient readers. This is a national disgrace. Schools continue to hand high school diplomas to people who can hardly read and write — a horrifying symptom of an education bureaucracy that long ago stopped valuing achievement.
Of course, that failure is not spread evenly across the country. There are some excellent public schools in America, but the terrible ones are most likely to be full of poor or minority children whose families can’t afford to leave. Only 15% of black eighth graders are proficient readers, according to the Nation’s Report Card, compared to 41% of white eighth graders.
For the whole country, this is an embarrassment. But for black and Hispanic students, it is an emergency.
This is not a problem of resources — it’s a problem of political will. America spends more than all Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development countries but one, Luxembourg, to educate one student for one school year. And yet we rank in the middle of the pack in terms of test scores. Our investment isn’t paying off because so much of it is sunk into school systems that continually fail the students they purport to serve.
Moreover, if the cost to taxpayers was what concerned anti-school choicers, they have picked the wrong side of the debate: In 42 states, it is cheaper to educate a student in a private school than in a public one.
The political Left, including the teachers’ unions, talk a big game about “equity” and “racial justice.” They have it backward: Racial justice in education means letting all families, regardless of zip code, choose where their children will learn. The Left opposes school choice at its own political peril and at the peril of America’s children.