Rethinking old tactics to advance school choice


For more than three decades, the private school choice movement has largely pursued a bipartisan legislative strategy. The math was simple: Democrats tend to oppose the choice of school, but if enough of them could be convinced to join broad Republican support, it would produce legislative victories.

To woo these Democrats, the Choice movement has favored designing programs that prioritize Democratic concerns. This included resource testing for eligible participants to target programs to Democratic voters, capping the size and funding of programs to avoid competing for resources provided to traditional public schools, and regulating school admissions. private sector, school disciplinary programs and practices.

While this approach may have seemed reasonable at the start of the Choice movement, there has been little critical re-examination to assess whether the strategy has actually succeeded in pushing through more programs. Anyway, did it work?

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In a new study published by the American Enterprise Institute, we conduct the first empirical analysis of this bipartisan strategy and find that it has failed to help create additional private school choice programs. Very few lawmakers in Democratic states vote for school choice proposals – and the few who hardly ever make a difference in whether these bills receive the support of at least 50% of lawmakers.

To conduct this analysis, we identify 70 votes from the state legislature on the initial adoption of private school choice programs. We find that while 85% of Republicans in State House Chambers and 88% of Republicans in State Senate Chambers voted for these choice bills, only 17% of House Democrats and 24% of Senate Democrats have done the same. Over the past three decades, the vast majority of support for choosing private schools in state legislatures has come from Republicans. Very little came from the Democrats.

We also examine whether the small number of lawmakers in Democratic states who voted for the choice of private schools helped push these bills over the hump to become law. We find that even if we assumed every Democrat voted “no,” the school choice would have received the support of at least 50% of lawmakers in 67 of those 70 legislative votes. That is, in almost all cases the private school choice bills did not need Democrat support to achieve 50% support. Republican state lawmakers provided almost all of the votes needed to pass the private school programs of choice. Democratic lawmakers were almost entirely inconsequential on the results.

Given this history, the school choice movement should reconsider its strategy. Of course, choice advocates should always welcome support from anywhere it can be found, but the design of choice proposals and the language of support for Democrats may not be the wisest way. increase the number of new choice programs from private schools. After all, more than 15% of lawmakers in Republican states have been reluctant to support school choice. Prioritizing Republican concerns could convince those reluctant Republicans to pass more agendas in the Red States without sacrificing the coalitions that already support Choice, as losing some Democratic votes almost never mattered. More than three-fifths of states are dominated by Republicans, so there are plenty of red states where new agendas could be enacted. And the success demonstrated in those Red States could potentially be leveraged to make progress in the Blue States on the road.

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This re-examination of the focus on courting Democrats has many implications for how the Choice move might play out. Advocates of choice might decide to focus on universal school choice programs without a means test or caps on program size, as they did recently with success in West Virginia. The 2021 Education Next A public opinion poll found that Republican support is more important for universal vouchers than low-income vouchers, while Democrats favor the vouchers more for low-income families than for all families. Advocates of choice might also embrace efforts to identify school choice as a mechanism for families to find learning options that reflect their values, allowing them to reject programs they don’t like, such as Critical Race Theory and Project 1619. This might appeal to a broader base of Republicans, even at the risk of losing Democrat support.

If the goal of the private school choice movement is to get more curriculum uptake, the empirical evidence clearly shows that the historic practice of wooing Democratic policymakers has not been effective. Indeed, it was probably counterproductive. Proponents of school choice should launch a values-based appeal for a choice that could attract more families, and elevate choice as a solution to some of the most pressing educational policy battles of the day.

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