The National GOP Gets the Memo on School Choice

Republican National Committee Chairman Ronna McDaniel speaks at the RNC in Washington, D.C., August 24, 2020. (Kevin Lamarque/Reuters)

As children around the country head back to school, whether online or in person, the school-choice debate has taken on a new sense of urgency. We’re witnessing how in many parts of the country, as public-school classrooms remain closed, local private schools have chosen to reopen for in-person learning while instituting safety measures, a choice that in some cases has drawn the ire of local officials.

For Republicans, who have long favored expanded school-choice programs, the COVID-19 pandemic is a new opportunity to champion policies that enable more parents to access schools that are best for their children, especially given the uncertainty of K–12 education this fall. As the Wall Street Journal editorial board noted, public concerns about schooling and the pandemic have led the GOP to focus renewed energy on this topic, in particular at last week’s Republican National Convention:

The 2020 Republican convention focused on issues in a way that the Democratic parley did not. Perhaps most striking was the impassioned—and repeated—demand for school choice. No convention had ever featured speaker after speaker who promoted choice in human and moral terms.

. . . As parents, teachers, principals and students have adapted to the pandemic, too many traditional public schools have been far less nimble in serving students than have charters, private and religious schools. Many parents are realizing this won’t change as long as funding is tied to buildings and bureaucracies rather than students.

Americans are also realizing that much of this is because the big school decisions are made by teachers unions. In Chicago, Mayor Lori Lightfoot had planned to reopen classrooms until the Chicago Teachers Union threatened a strike, and now that’s been put off until at least November. In Maryland a health officer twice ordered private and religious schools closed, lest they embarrass their public counterparts.

Meanwhile, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says reopening schools is itself a matter of public health because the harm to keeping children out of the classroom is “well-known and significant.” The CDC adds that keeping schools closed “disproportionately harms low-income and minority children and those living with disabilities” because their parents lack the resources to switch to a private school, hire a tutor, or even sign up for after-school programs.

It’s a significant victory for the school-choice movement that the national Republican Party chose to feature so many speakers, most of whom were “average Americans,” talking about the value of increased access to non-public schools. As I’ve covered here at NRO, several states have chosen to use some of the COVID-19 education-related relief funding allocated by Congress in the CARES Act to bolster existing school-choice programs or create new ones.

Meanwhile, in response to the unfolding crisis, Republican senators Tim Scott (S.C.) and Lamar Alexander (Tenn.) have rolled out the School Choice Now Act, which would repurpose 10 percent of the CARES Act’s emergency relief funding to offer block grants to states so they can fund school-choice scholarship organizations. The bill would also establish a permanent, federal tax-credit scholarship program, a proposal that school-choice proponents have favored for quite some time.

Not only is GOP support for school choice a commonsense policy, it is much more in sync with the views of most Americans, including minorities, than is the Democratic opposition to expanded school choice. One survey this spring found that most nonwhite families support school choice, including 67 percent of African Americans and 63 percent of Hispanics. Meanwhile, half of African Americans said they consider themselves more likely to homeschool after lockdowns end, and blacks and Hispanics are the most likely of any demographic to support a federal tax-credit scholarship program; close to three-quarters of each group says they’d back such a plan.

Highlighting the distance between Democratic policy preferences and Americans’ views, and emphasizing the Republican commitment to increased school choice, is a smart move for Republicans up and down the ballot this election cycle.

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