School Choice is a Winning Issue

Demographics matter, and after the disappointing 2012 election results, the GOP has decided it may be a good idea to focus on growing the party by reaching out to the youth and minority communities.  Ignoring certain demographics will continue to hurt the party, as will ignoring key issues.  Just like during the 2012 campaign cycle, the GOP is leaving out a key issue that could not only grow the party, but more importantly, could help millions of children receive a better education. I’m referring to school choice.  Not only is school choice a winning issue for those already engaged in the party, it could also earn the minority and youth vote. It’s time the GOP focused its attention on an area where real reform can, and must happen. 

Recently I attended the Franklin Institute’s School Choice Conference for bloggers in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. In 1990, former governor Tommy Thompson implemented several school choice reforms, and years later they are having an impact not only on educational outcomes, but also on how the public views this issue.

During the 2010 midterm election, Milwaukee overwhelmingly supported Democratic gubernatorial candidate Tom Barrett, who received nearly 74% of the vote. Even with that result, Milwaukee approved of school choice five months later. In fact, 59% of Milwaukee voters approved of school choice, while only 29% disapproved. Approval rose to 71% when families with school-age children were polled. When Governor Walker proposed school choice statewide, while attempting to remove income restrictions, the approval of school choice was at 53%, while 36% disapproved.  Minority voters also supported school choice by almost the same margin. These statistics may surprise you, but they further suggest that school choice is not only a bipartisan issue, but it’s one that can also garner votes in heavily Democratic areas. If school choice is supported in one of the most liberal cities in the Midwest, it would make sense to work on reforms, and talk about policy that would impact every school district across the nation.  Since the release of the last poll cited, the Wisconsin Assembly and Senate passed the expansion of school choice, which became effective earlier this year.

Nearly identical poll results were shown in another Democratic stronghold: Rhode Island. Voters in Rhode Island have opted for a Democratic presidential candidate in every election except one (Reagan) since 1972. A poll released by the Friedman Foundation for Educational Choice a few weeks ago showed broad bipartisan support in Rhode Island for school choice. 62% of Rhode Island residents believe that vouchers should be available for all families while 54% of Rhode Islanders stated that they would rather send their kids to a private school given the opportunity. Only 44% of Rhode Islanders gave their public schools an A or B, while 79% gave their private schools an A or B. These results highlight dissatisfaction with traditional choices, and growing support for school choice and voucher programs. A Democratic assemblywoman from Rhode Island also recently sponsored a bill that would have given 70% of the state’s residents access to vouchers.

There is a disconnect that must be addressed though. While African-Americans show tremendous support for school choice in polls, in the 2012 Presidential election, 93% of African-Americans voted for Barack Obama, who shut down the DC Opportunity Scholarship program shortly after being elected in 2008. How much focus was paid to school choice during the 2012 election cycle? Almost none. Obama’s failure to provide educational opportunities to children has gone largely unnoticed. While President Obama may use words now that sound like choice and opportunity, no policy agendas supporting school choice during his first term were proposed to back up the rhetoric.  

This August, another poll conducted by the Black Alliance for Educational Options showed almost 90% of African-Americans in the south supported school choice policy, and nearly 58% also said they would rather send their child to a private school than a public school given the opportunity. That is a staggering number. How does this issue fare with the much coveted 18-24 demographic?  In both Kentucky and Alabama,school choice is supported overwhelmingly by young voters, with as much as 71% of respondents supporting the idea. It’s clear that much of the black community supports reform, and if articulated correctly by leaders in the GOP, I believe they’d also support politicians who would work for these reforms as well. 

In Wisconsin, as well as several other states like Pennsylvania and Florida, school choice passed with bipartisan support. Many grassroots activists and bloggers have been pushing hard to get school choice passed in their state and it’s important that the Republican Party, and you help join the fight. It’s a winning issue. It is one that can, and will grow the Republican party, and more importantly, real reform will provide opportunity to millions of children who are currently stuck in failing schools.  Democrats, minorities and the youth have shown their support for school choice and a strong focus on school choice in 2014 could help lead to victory. Now who will lead?