In the aftermath of Mitt Romney’s defeat, Republicans are scrambling to find a winning electoral formula. While the punditry class advises the GOP to cave in on immigration and social issues, the bigger and better opportunity for Republicans to increase their voter base and divide the Democrats would be to make parental choice in education a loud priority.
So much of the conventional wisdom dished out by Monday-morning-quarterbacking media grandees is wrong. Pandering to different demographic groups won’t open the voter floodgates for Republicans, because Democrats will always be willing to call the GOP’s bet and raise it. What Republicans need is an issue on which Democrats cannot outflank them and that will appeal to ordinary voters in populous Democratic strongholds. Parental choice in education fits that bill.
Democrats cannot outbid Republicans on parental choice because their paymasters, the teachers’ unions, won’t allow them. President Obama claims to support education reform but opposes full-blown choice options such as voucher programs. His reasons, such as believing that money is better spent on increasing public-school funding and that voucher-scholarship programs don’t improve student achievement, are easily rebutted, as the empirical evidence shows otherwise. More important, the groups that Republicans are trying to win over support wider parental-choice options.
The Washington, D.C., voucher-scholarship program, for example, has strong support among African-American parents in the nation’s capital. Among Latinos, the support for school-choice options is huge and exceeds that of the public in general. According to a May 2012 survey by the American Federation for Children and the Hispanic Council for Reform and Educational Options (HCREO), an eye-opening 69 percent of Latino voters in five swing states supported vouchers, versus 57 percent of all voters.
“Unfortunately,” notes Julio Fuentes, president and CEO of HCREO, “a lot of our Latino families come from low-income areas [where] choice is the only way that they are going to be able to achieve that American dream of graduating high school and going on to make something of themselves.” While the Democrat-sponsored DREAM Act focuses on the illegal-immigrant slice of the Latino population, choice options such as vouchers to attend private schools are accessible to all segments of the Latino community. In other words, parental choice is the true dream act for all.
While most Democrats have abandoned their constituents on school choice, most Republicans have supported them. However, that support has often been quiet and low-key.
Mitt Romney supported parental-choice options such as vouchers, but his comments on the issue were limited and didn’t form the backbone of his appeal to Latino and other minority voters. That strategy must change immediately.
Latino voters are more likely than most to say education is a leading issue for them. Yet, says Mr. Fuentes, “The immigration debate from a national level has taken the spotlight, and this educational crisis that we find ourselves in, especially within our Hispanic community, just seems to never be discussed.” Republicans have to show that they care deeply about this critical issue, and there’s no better way to demonstrate that they care than by championing popular and beneficial parental-choice programs.
So here is what Republican leaders and candidates can do: become megaphones for parents and parental choice; immerse yourselves in communities and do the hard work of building choice-based coalitions; participate very publicly in grassroots demonstrations such as National School Choice Week; learn from Republican heroes such as Louisiana governor Bobby Jindal, who pushed through landmark choice legislation; and promise not to play it safe, play by conventional rules, or cede the playing field to the other side.
By making parental choice a paramount issue, Republicans don’t have to sell out their principles of freedom and liberty — they just have to amp up the zeal of their belief.
— Lance T. Izumi is Koret Senior Fellow and senior director of education studies at the Pacific Research Institute.