The school choice crowd in the Republican Party has long been a collection of do-gooder activists and well-heeled donors who are crusading to better the lives of urban unfortunates. All of their efforts have been made with the hope that someday those urban unfortunates would repay the generosity of voucher programs by breaking the hold of Democrat machines on cities like Philadelphia, Chicago, and New Orleans.
They meant well. Lord, did they mean well.
But Republicans have spent more than 20 years trying to institute school choice of some kind or another, and the results have been … underwhelming.
Why? The market works in just about every other segment of human endeavor. Wouldn’t offering kids alternative schooling options also be effective?
American education at the K–12 level has been in decline for longer than the school choice movement has been around, but it seems like the more ground the school-choicers gain, the worse schools get. It’s counterintuitive and disturbing.
But there’s a simple explanation: Rotten things stink exponentially more as the rot continues, and public education in America has been rotting for half a century.
And while the school-choicers are on the side of the angels, they haven’t been anywhere near as aggressive as circumstances have required.
This is changing, though, because the leading edge of the school choice movement seems to have recalibrated. The vogue now isn’t vouchers; it’s full-on “money follows the child.”
That makes a difference, you know.
In case you aren’t aware, a quick primer: The voucher programs instituted in the previous decade were generally attempts to aid lower-income kids trapped in bad schools in bad districts, and the programs were usually triggered by certain circumstances. And while they certainly helped people in spots, they demonstrated only incremental benefits.
Education Savings Accounts seek to throw open the entire education system and divide the funding among parents rather than schools and then, with as few limits as possible, let the marketplace sort things out.
Though it’s a similar idea from a policy standpoint, it’s a radically different one politically. It stands to reason that Education Savings Accounts would come to the forefront; frankly, they needed to be the position of school-choicers all along.
There are lots of reasons for this, but the simplest one is the most compelling. “Money follows the child” creates a political constituency for the GOP, while vouchers actually scare one away.
I can speak to this from personal observation. In 2019, Eddie Rispone, a hyper-successful businessman and major donor to the school choice movement, decided to run against incumbent Democrat Gov. John Bel Edwards in Louisiana. Rispone had helped the previous governor, Bobby Jindal, institute a somewhat aggressive school voucher program in 2012. That program focused on underprivileged kids trapped in failing schools, and it subsidized those kids as they migrated to private schools, charter schools, and other options.
Rispone planned to run on his work to promote school choice. But by the time he finished his pre-campaign polling, the issue wasn’t even on his back-burner.
Why? Because the beneficiaries of the vouchers were all Democrats who weren’t going to vote for Eddie Rispone over the governor they had put in place four years earlier. It did not matter that Edwards, a teachers union stooge, had all but wrecked the voucher program in his first term. They weren’t going to vote Republican.
And the middle-class parents in Louisiana’s suburban parishes who are the backbone of Republican voting strength? They were mostly untouched by the school choice program.
Louisiana has one of the highest rates of private school enrollment in the country, owing to the fact that the state’s public schools have always been among the nation’s worst. And a huge proportion of the state’s middle-class population is either in the private (or, increasingly, the homeschool) education market or in public school districts that might not be excellent but are not catastrophically bad.
Convincing predominantly suburban parents to support the use of their tax dollars to provide free tuition to mostly inner-city children so that those children can attend the same private schools that they themselves pay to send their kids to? Let’s just say that’s a poor seller.
Thus, vouchers come across as helping somebody else’s political constituency at the perceived expense of your own.
A parent who doles out $8,000 or $10,000 a year to send her kid to a Catholic school — giving up a new car or a European vacation to afford that cost — is acutely aware that her tax dollars are also covering a larger per-student cost for government schools. Now you’re telling her that the Republican Party is going to rake off some of those tax dollars so that the victims of those schools will bring their problems to Our Lady Of Perpetual Peace, where little Samantha attends school.
This is not how the GOP’s Mama Bears are going to get fired up about helping Republicans win.
But come back with “money follows the child,” in which that $8,000 for Catholic school can be covered by a refundable tax credit, and the new car or European vacation is all of a sudden in the realm of possibility. Now, the Mama Bear in question will not only vote Republican, but she’ll also volunteer for the party. And she will never consider a Democrat again; Democrats, after all, are the people who will take away that $8,000 per year.
The problem with the voucher approach is that it was an old-school white-paper policy that sought to create policy utopia without recognizing the basic politics involved.
It’s little wonder that “money follows the child” polls better and passes more easily in the states where it’s been pushed.
By the way, Democrats oppose both school choice plans with the same fanaticism. You might as well get your money’s worth, politically and otherwise.