Why School Choice and Why Now?
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President Trump and Vice President Pence walk to a coronavirus task briefing, March 30, 2020 (Tia Dufour/Official White House Photo).

In his Tuesday Rose Garden address, President Trump announced the Executive Order on Safe Policing and for Safe Communities. This executive order comes in the wake of protests sweeping across the nation in the past weeks. The president also brought up a topic that may seem unrelated to the day’s agenda: school choice. 

We achieved the lowest black, Hispanic, and Asian unemployment rates in American history,” Trump said. “We’ll do it again. We’re fighting for school choice, which really is the civil rights [issue] of all time in this country. Frankly, school choice is the civil rights statement of the year, of the decade, and probably beyond.”

As a policy generally supported by Republicans today and opposed by Democrats, many interpreted President Trump’s remarks on school choice as an attempt to advance a conservative political agenda. The Hill described President Trump’s school choice remarks as “out of place as the nation is gripped by protests over the treatment of black Americans by law enforcement.” 

But the connection between the protesters’ grievances and school choice is a simple one: the right to quality public education.

School choice allows families to choose the school that best fits their child’s needs, not simply the one determined by their address. School choice diverts state and local tax dollars to scholarship tax credits, tax-credit deductions, and private school vouchers. Options include private schools, charter schools, magnet schools, homeschooling, and online schooling. 

The issue is rooted in school funding. Many predominantly black communities are classified as low-income areas. Lower-income means less tax revenue from property taxes. Lower tax revenue means less school funding. Less school funding usually leads to a lower quality of education in school districts. 

Recent research from Stanford University shows that African American students score below their state’s average in the National Assessment of Education Progress Exam (NAEP) in the overwhelming majority of states. Two-thirds of minority students attend primarily minority populated schools, and students in these school districts generally face greater educational obstacles. 

School choice addresses the inexcusable socioeconomic inequity African American students experience. By allowing lower-income students to attend school outside of their underperforming school districts, they have equal educational opportunities as students from higher-income families, thus closing the gap in education accessibility. 

School choice is not a new concept in the United States. The first education vouchers were proposed in the 1950s. There is considerable evidence of school choice programs leading to increased test scores and higher graduation rates in communities across the country. 

In the last decade, school choice has gained support on both sides of the political aisle.  President Barack Obama’s 2017 budget proposal allocated $350 million to charter schools. In recent years, however, school choice has become a contested issue within the Democratic Party. A 2019 Harvard study showed that 70 percent of African American Democrats support school voucher programs, and 55 percent support charter schools. Only 46 percent of White Democrats support school voucher programs, and 33 percent support charter schools. 

Even Joe Biden used to support school choice. In 1997, on the Senate floor, Biden said, “Is it not possible that giving poor kids a way out will force the public schools to improve and result in more people coming back?” Biden has since had a change of heart and has included cutting federal funding to charter schools in his 2020 presidential campaign agenda. 

Since school choice policies have been proven to improve educational opportunities in lower-income areas, it is disappointing that Democrats have shifted their agenda to defunding charter schools. Every child in America should have equal access to quality public education. Many African American students from lower-income school districts do not have this liberty. If school districts are unable to provide quality education to their residents, families should have options that allow their students to reach their full academic and career potential. President Trump is completely right in referring to school choice as a civil rights issue.

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