School Choice Looms as Electoral Stealth Issue

School Choice Looms as Electoral Stealth Issue
Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) has called school choice "the civil rights issue of the 21st century." Here, he is seen on stage during the Turning Point USA Student Action Summit held at the Tampa Convention Center in Tampa, Fla., on July 22, 2022. (Joe Raedle/Getty Images)
Dan M. Berger

Conservatives gathered at the pro-Trump America First Policy Summit in Washington this week talked about numerous issues like soaring crime, the ailing economy, and tensions abroad.

One topic, though, emerged as a stealth issue and potentially significant factor in the upcoming elections: school choice. The policy seeks to give parents who want to take their children out of failing public school systems more access to charter or private schools.

“School choice is the single most important domestic issue in this country. It’s the civil rights issue of the 21st century,” Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) said.

Cruz made the comments during a panel discussion on the subject on Tuesday with former Trump campaign manager and senior advisor Kellyanne Conway and Rep. Byron Donalds (R-Fla.) The three have nine children between them in public schools.

According to polling estimates, 70 percent of Americans support school choice, with an even higher number of black and Hispanic parents included in that average. Their view on the issue stands consistently at 70 to 80 percent support, Cruz said.

Donalds, who represents southwest Florida in Congress, said the issue decided Ron DeSantis’ narrow victory over Andrew Gillum in the 2018 Florida governor race, which went to a recount.

As the election approached, Gillum’s staff thought they had the race won, Donalds said. But Republicans sent out targeted messages to black and Hispanics saying that Gillum would take away school choice. “Parents will side with their kids each and every time.”

“Sixty years after Democrat governors stood in schoolhouse doors refusing to let in children of color,” Conway said, “now we have bigoted people all over the country refusing to let kids out of those schoolhouse doors to access educational opportunities.”

Former Trump advisor Kellyanne Conway believes the school choice issue is drawing minority parents to the Republican Party. (Courtesy of the Corman Campaign)
Former Trump advisor Kellyanne Conway believes the school choice issue is drawing minority parents to the Republican Party. (Courtesy of the Corman Campaign)

Cruz said the issue is so critical it decides whether he’ll endorse a candidate in a Republican primary, at risk of alienating other Republicans. He only does it for candidates who support school choice, he said.

“If kids get a good education, we know that their chances of going down the road of crime, the chances of being trapped in poverty, their chances of health care challenges, of addictions, plummets,” Cruz said.

The Texas senator said he saw these challenges firsthand when the public schools closed during the COVID-19 lockdown, many for a year or more, to rely on remote education. He and his wife Heidi had their hands full working with their two children—each supervising one—to keep them on task. But he realized single mothers who couldn’t work remotely and had to go to work didn’t have that option. And most of those children just missed school for all those months.

Shift Among Minority Voters

The issue may be one driving a shift among minorities towards the Republicans, particularly among Hispanic voters. Recent polls in Georgia show Republican Brian Kemp attracting 35 percent of the Hispanic vote and Republican Herschel Walker getting 40 percent of it.

“Hispanics have always been very supportive of school choice. Many want to send their children to Catholic parochial schools or other Christian and faith-based schools,” said Alfonso Aguilar, president of the Latino Partnership for Conservative Principles, a Washington-based advocacy group.

“Their support for school choice has only increased,” Aguilar said. “Hispanics are concerned and turned off by efforts in public schools to sexualize children or teach them woke ideas like CRT.”

Polls show that 70 percent of Democrats nationally support school choice, including two-thirds of black, Asian, and Hispanic parents, said Marci McCarthy, Republican chairwoman in Georgia’s DeKalb County, part of metro Atlanta.

She said that her county party has seen more interest from minorities who have previously been considered staunch Democrat voters.

Lot of Parents’ Concerns

The school choice issue ties together a lot of concerns—not just historically failing schools.

Anger has surged over schools’ poor performances during the COVID-19 lockdown, masking controversies, the teaching of critical race theory, and the teaching of sexuality such as transgenderism to young children.

McCarthy said Donalds’s take on DeSantis’s election—that he was put over the top by minority parents behind school choice—is the conventional wisdom among Republicans now. “He got a lot of the black female vote.”

Democratic strategist Fred Hicks of Atlanta said Democrats are coming around on the issue. The Democratic nominee for Georgia State Superintendent of Schools, Alisha Thomas Searcy, supports school choice, said Hicks, who has consulted for her campaign.

Democratic strategist Fred Hicks says Democrats are coming around to support school choice. (Supplied/Fred Hicks)
Democratic strategist Fred Hicks says Democrats are coming around to support school choice. (Supplied/Fred Hicks)

“So it’s not a partisan issue anymore. Old school Democrats were traditionally opposed to it,” Hicks said. But the year of learning lost to COVID-19 triggered change. “Parents want schools that are going to work for them and their kids.”

And other Democratic candidates may be getting the message. Hicks said Stacey Abrams’s campaign for Georgia governor has hired a policy director who advocates for charter schools.

What Democrats can support is choice within the public school system, giving parents more freedom, say, to get away from their failing public school to enroll in a better one elsewhere in the same district. That may not work, however, in rural areas, where schools are distant, or a county has only one high school, Hicks said.

Where the parties differ, he said, is on the issue of school vouchers—giving parents their child’s share of school education funds to use to send their child to a public or private school of their choice.

The money usually won’t cover the full costs of private schooling. Some parents can’t afford to make up the difference, Hicks said. He added he was a public school teacher in Alabama and then an education professor at Florida A&M University before he switched to politics.

What raises the financial bar even higher is having to make up for benefits like transportation and meal programs offered by public schools, but not private schools.

A deeper problem, he said, is that private schools can pick and choose their students, which often includes less children from low-income neighborhoods. In attempts to do this, “low-income children have not fared as well.” Public schools must take children with disabilities and behavioral problems.

Another divisive issue remains—whether the money should be used to send children to religious private schools. A recent Supreme Court decision allows Maine parents in rural areas with no public schools to do just that.

Unions Stand in Opposition

Hicks differentiated teachers from their unions on school choice. He said that teachers don’t necessarily oppose the policy, focusing instead on pay, benefits, tenure, and working conditions. Public schools pay better, but many teachers prefer the more orderly classroom atmosphere of private schools.

“Teachers unions are a very different story,” he said. “They’re very anti-school choice and anti-vouchers.”

McCarthy said the issue exposes broad dissatisfaction with public schools, which spend an increasing amount of time addressing race and sexuality questions rather than focusing on STEAM: science, technology, engineering, arts, and math.

“We are teaching people to be victims in our schools rather than to become contributing members of society,” McCarthy said.

She talked about her own county’s struggles—a student video of appalling conditions at one high school went viral—and with a school board she called “ridiculously woke.”