The mainstream press and political pundits are bombarding us with a stream of warnings that Donald Trump and the other Republican candidates are driving minority voters away from the Republican Party by their “extreme” proposals and rhetoric. Whether or not one believes there’s any truth to this, Trump and every other Republican candidate can prove the dire predictions wrong with one simple act — sign a pledge that they support education savings accounts (“ESAs”) for all families and will work to pass legislation authorizing ESAs. No single policy proposal will do more to attract low-income black and Hispanic voters than treating the dreams and aspirations that those voters have for their children to be as important as those of families who can afford to move to the right zip code or pay private school tuition.
Mr. Trump and the other Republican presidential candidates should agree to sign the ESA pledge at the beginning of the CNN debate scheduled for September 16 at the Reagan Library. Nothing would be more fitting than for the leaders of the current Republican Party to honor the legacy of Ronald Reagan by signing this pledge in his library and before his wife, 32 years after the publication of A Nation at Risk. This Reagan initiative issued the alarm that “The educational foundations of our society are presently being eroded by a rising tide of mediocrity that threatens our very future as a Nation and a people.” In its words, “If an unfriendly foreign power had attempted to impose on America the mediocre educational performance that exists today, we might well have viewed it as an act of war….” The authors of the report began with a restatement of a fundamental premise of the American Dream:
All, regardless of race or class or economic status, are entitled to a fair chance and the tools for developing their individual powers of mind and spirit to the utmost. This promise means that all children by virtue of their own efforts, competently guided, can hope to attain the mature and informed judgment needed to secure gainful employment, and to manage their own lives, thereby serving their own interests but also the progress of society itself.
Unfortunately, in 2015, we still do not give all children a fair chance since we only allow it to those with the economic means to segregate themselves in public schools in the right zip code, or in private schools. Mr. Trump and his fellow candidates would, by taking the ESA pledge, honor President Reagan’s beliefs, expressed at a White House briefing in January 1989, when he said:
Choice represents a return to some of our most basic notions about education. In particular, programs emphasizing choice reflect the simple truth that the keys to educational success are schools and teachers that teach, and parents who insist that their children learn.… And choice in education is the wave of the future because it represents a return to some of the most basic American values. Choice in education is no mere abstraction. Like its economic cousin, free enterprise, and its political cousin, democracy, it affords hope and opportunity.
Americans today still fundamentally support Reagan’s belief in the inherent right of parents to make the best choices for their children with as little interference from the government as possible.
For a more recent example of the power of parental choice, the Republican candidates should look to Nevada, where in January 2015 Republicans took joint control of the Nevada legislature and governor’s mansion for the first time since 1929. Less than six months later, Nevada Republicans passed a ground-breaking law allowing universal school choice for the first time in the history of the United States. The power of ESAs can be seen by the fact that those families whose children aren’t currently eligible for the program because their children attend private schools are clamoring for an amendment to include them. Nearly every poll shows that, regardless of political persuasion, economic class, or race, two of every three Americans support school choice. As Deborah Beck, a Democratic pollster put it, in announcing the results of her January 2015 poll showing 70% support for the concept:
“The poll clearly shows widespread support, among both political parties, for school choice. Any public official — or potential candidate for President — who ignores these numbers does so at their own peril.”
Nevada Gov. Brian Sandoval and his fellow Republicans, by following the beliefs of President Reagan and authorizing ESAs, made it possible for families all over America to legitimately ask Mr. Trump and every political leader: If Nevada trusts its parents to make the right choice, why can’t my children have the same freedom and opportunity? As Assemblyman Ira Hansen said, when one of the bill’s opponents questioned whether parents are skilled in making the right choices for curriculum and instruction: “I think we need to have more confidence in our parents…”
No one will argue that school choice, by itself, will win the presidency for Republicans. However, when you combine state-authorized ESAs with millions of federal ESAs for the poorest children, Republicans would have compelling arguments to appeal not only to their base voters, but also to attract a larger share of the minority vote. Hillary Clinton and the Democrats want to make income inequality a big issue in the 2016 race. By supporting ESAs, Republicans can ask black and Hispanic voters a simple question: Why should you continue voting for candidates who refuse to give your children a fair shot at achieving the American Dream?
We’ve had over 30 years since publication of A Nation at Risk to trust the so-called experts of the Education-Industrial Complex to provide equal quality education options to all children. They’ve failed miserably. It’s time, as the Nevada representative said, “to have more confidence in our parents.” It’s time Mr. Trump and the Republican Party begin to fulfill the legacy of Ronald Reagan by signing the ESA Pledge.