Commentary

School Choice Support Has Mainstreamed

This article appeared in the Cleveland Plain Dealer on April 1, 2009.

President Barack Obama and Congressional Democrats recently served an educational eviction notice to more than 1,700 poor children in the nation’s capitol. A small provision buried in the omnibus spending bill sets requirements for the survival of the D.C. Opportunity Scholarship Program that are extremely unlikely to be met. Despite vague assertions by the Obama administration that the students will not be “disrupted,” as it stands, most of these children will be forced to return to failing public schools in the District.

The D.C. voucher death sentence is a disappointment for the movement and a tragedy for the children. However, the elite reaction to this school-choice defeat reveals how far school choice has advanced. Support for school choice has mainstreamed, and it’s only a matter of time before the political barriers are brought down.

The fate of the D.C. voucher program captured widespread attention in recent weeks as news of the Congressional hit job became known. And rather than a strict conservative/liberal face-off on this traditionally free-market issue, we saw a surprising amount of school choice support from mainstream, even center-left, sources.

The Washington Post, for instance, led early with an editorial denouncing the poorly concealed effort by Congressional Democrats to kill school choice in the District. In a second editorial, they asked that Democrats save their “phony concern about the children” and admit it’s all about politics and paying off the teachers unions.

Choice opponents are on the wrong side of right and the wrong side of history. ”

The Chicago Tribune followed with full-throated support of D.C. vouchers. A paper that expressed, in its endorsement of Obama, “tremendous confidence in his intellectual rigor, his moral compass and his ability to make sound, thoughtful, careful decisions” notes the rank hypocrisy of a President Obama who sends his own children to an expensive private school while kowtowing to the unions in his opposition to school choice for those without independent means.

In a surprising turn, even Arne Duncan, secretary of education in Obama’s administration, publicly opposed taking vouchers away from kids in the program.

Elite opinion matters; it is the foodstuff of mass public opinion. And it is of particular importance when the composition of elite communication begins to shift.

The academic guru of mass opinion, University of California Berkley professor John Zaller, explains that public political opinion can, to a large extent, be explained by the flow of elite messages. Public opinion shifts or settles in response to the relative intensity and stability of opposing flows of liberal and conservative communications. When elites are polarized, the public polarizes according to political awareness and values.

When elites unite on mainstream issues, the public’s response is relatively nonideological and lopsided. School choice is progressively mainstreaming, slowly but surely moving from a polarized elite debate to one where the intensity and support is weighted in favor of school choice.

When an issue that used to be considered free-market fringe is embraced as a moral litmus test for politicians by liberal editorial boards, the issue-argument has been won. That’s certainly not to say the policy war has been won, but an important battle toward realizing that goal has been.

The opposition’s intensity and moral certitude is bleeding out one program at a time. School choice is no longer an abstract proposition; faces and lives are attached to the 24 private school-choice programs in 14 states and the District of Columbia. In the past four years, four education tax-credit programs have passed that serve at least low-income children.

School choice is popular and becoming more familiar to the public every year. An Education Next/Harvard PEPG survey found that even 53 percent of current and former public school employees support education tax credits and only 25 percent oppose them.

And support for choice, especially education tax credits, is becoming increasingly bipartisan. Florida’s donation tax-credit program became law in 2001 with the vote of a single Democratic legislator. Last year, a third of statehouse Democrats, half the black caucus and the entire Hispanic caucus voted to expand that program.

New or expanded tax-credit initiatives were signed into law by Democratic governors in Arizona, Iowa and Pennsylvania in 2006. That same year, a Democrat-controlled legislature in Rhode Island passed a donation tax credit and a Democratic governor and legislature in Iowa expanded the tax-credit dollar cap by 50 percent in 2007.

Last year, six states moved a school choice bill through both chambers and five more passed a bill through one chamber. Georgia passed a universal donation tax credit program, and Louisiana passed both a voucher program and an education tax deduction.

School-choice opponents might have won the battle over vouchers in the District, but they are losing the larger war. They have inadvertently revealed what’s truly at stake; not funding issues or public school ideology, but our promise to all children of a fair shot at success in life.

Choice opponents are on the wrong side of right and the wrong side of history.

Adam B. Schaeffer is an education policy analyst at the Cato Institute.