School Choice at the Polls

In a nation with a strong tradition of holding major political contests in years divisible by the number two, politicos are mostly confined to chirping about distant elections during odd-numbered years. The exceptions in the year following a presidential election are New Jersey and Virginia, which hold their gubernatorial elections. In addition, due to the passing of Senator Frank Lautenberg, New Jersey will hold a special election to the U.S. Senate. In all three elections, one or both of the major candidates have made school choice an issue. That makes sense because school choice is increasingly popular, especially once implemented. Unfortunately, while the candidates should be commended for promoting school choice policies in general, their specifics leave much to be desired.

Last week, the Republican gubernatorial candidate in Virginia, Ken Cuccinelli, unveiled an education plan calling for an expansion of the state’s scholarship tax credit program (or the creation of a separate program) that would direct funds to students currently attending a failing public school. However, what Virginia’s scholarship tax credit program really needs is the policy equivalent of Extreme Home Makeover to remove unnecessary regulations on private schools, shift administration of the program to the Department of Revenue, increase the credit amount, and expand the uses of the scholarships beyond just tuition. As Andrew Coulson has demonstrated, it is the least regulated, most market-like private schools that do the best job of serving families. 

In New Jersey, Governor Chris Christie is once again advocating for a scholarship tax credit program, just as he had promised in 2009. Thus far, Christie has not fulfilled his promise. While Christie has repeatedly included a tax credit program in his proposed budgets, he has also repeatedly signed budgets lacking such programs. Certainly Christie faces a hostile legislature on this issue, but he has proven capable of getting his top priorities through. Private school choice does not appear to be one of them. That said, recognizing the need for competition, Christie did implement a modest public school choice law and has helped transform some traditional district schools into charter schools. It’s certainly possible that if reelected, he might spend his enhanced political capital on finally enacting private school choice. Color me skeptical, but if the latest polls are any indication, voters will give Christie the opportunity to finally keep his promise.

In the New Jersey Senate race, both candidates have declared their support for school choice. Indeed, the issue has become somewhat of a political football, with former mayor Steve Lonegan accusing Mayor Cory Booker of not being sufficiently pro-school choice:

“It is time for Cory Booker to man up and say once and for all whether he will support school vouchers if he is elected to the U.S. Senate or will he join President Obama in shutting down school voucher programs…Cory had seven years to give low-income students in Newark a chance at receiving a quality education. Instead, he has offered platitudes and vague statements.”

The attack is somewhat disingenuous since a voucher program would have to be enacted at the state level, not the local level. Some commentators see the attack as an effort to drive a wedge between Booker and his base to dampen support on election day, though Booker’s support for vouchers didn’t hurt him in the primary. What’s not clear is how either candidate’s support for school choice will translate into policy in the Senate. Supporting the Washington, D.C. voucher program is certainly laudable, but pushing for a national voucher program would be misguided.

In summary, it is encouraging that the popularity of school choice programs has translated into greater political support, but this year’s elections don’t offer much for school choice advocates to get excited about.