School-Choice Supporters Should Drop the Overheated Rhetoric

Students arrive at a high school in Venice, Calif., in 2015. (Jonathan Alcorn/Reuters)
Most parents are actually not that unhappy with their kids’ public schools.

The school-choice movement features more than its share of alarmist rhetoric and extravagant boasts. U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos has opined that school choice is necessary because millions of students “are trapped in schools that fail to meet their needs.” Proponents boast that “like Uber disrupts the transportation industry, charter schools and private schools can and are disrupting the education industry.”

The presumption is that parents are dissatisfied with their children’s neighborhood school, and with the American education system as a whole. Advocates for charter schooling, school vouchers, and education savings accounts seem convinced that they are well-served by creating a stark contrast between what they’re offering and the familiar status quo — that talk of failing schools and promises of disruption will help win over parents and voters.

And school choice has been on quite a run, leaving advocates confident that their message is working. After all, three decades ago, there were no charter schools or school-voucher programs in the United States. Today, more than 40 states have adopted charter-school laws, with 7,000 charter schools enrolling more than 3 million students. Additionally, 29 states have adopted some kind of private-school choice program.

Yet this remarkable legislative success has not been matched by similar shifts in public opinion (as we’ll note in a moment). Thus it’s worth asking why school choice’s political accomplishments appear to be outpacing its success in winning hearts and minds. Indeed, what if school choice is succeeding not because of its advocates’ rhetoric, but despite it? What if proposals to give parents, educators, and communities more options have simply been buoyed by their innate moral and practical resonance and savvy coalition-building? And what if, in fact, superheated rhetoric has done more to alienate potential supporters than to woo them?

While there’s evidence that support for school choice has broadly increased over time, the trend is far more muddled than a casual observer might imagine. PDK International’s annual survey of the public’s views on education has asked the same question on school vouchers for 25 years. At first, views on vouchers rose steadily: from 24 percent positive vs. 74 percent negative in 1993, to 46 vs. 52 percent, respectively, in 2002. Since 2002, however, support has stagnated; in 2017, it stood at 39 percent — lower than it had been 15 years before (opposition held steady at 52 percent). Education Next’s annual survey has asked about vouchers since 2011, finding that support for vouchers has stayed roughly constant, hovering between 43 and 50 percent between 2011 and 2017. (Full disclosure: Co-author Hess is an editor of Education Next.)

On charter schools, generally regarded as a cuddlier and less polarizing alternative to school vouchers, there is more growth — but then a similar stagnation. PDK’s annual survey found that support for charters increased from 42 percent in 2000 to 70 percent in 2014 (the last year the question was asked). That story is complicated, however, by the annual Education Next poll, which started asking about charters in 2008. Ed Next found that support for charter schools was at 42 percent in 2008, grew to 55 percent by 2014, but then fell back to 39 percent between 2014 and 2017. Even if one opts to toss in a recent poll that used Ed Next’s charter-school question and found a sizable bump in support, from 39 percent in 2017 to 47 percent in 2018, charters are still down markedly from 2014

In short, the extraordinary growth of school choice isn’t showing up in public opinion — and there’s evidence that support has plateaued (or even declined) in recent years. How to make sense of these findings? Well, while Americans like school choice, they also like their local schools and are uncomfortable with proposals to radically transform schooling.

In short, the extraordinary growth of school choice isn’t showing up in public opinion.

Between 1974 and 2017, when asked by PDK International’s annual survey to rate their community’s schools, nearly half of Americans typically gave their local schools an A or a B. Forty-nine percent did so in 2017; the same number that did so when the question was first posed in 1974. During the 21st century, the share of respondents giving their local schools an A or a B has consistently been over 40 percent — with a high of 53 percent in 2013.

More tellingly, when asked about their own child’s school, parents expressed high levels of satisfaction. Between 1985 and 2017, when PDK asked parents to grade their oldest child’s school, more than three in five offered an A or a B. The lowest level of support was 62 percent, in 1998; in 2017, 71 percent gave their kid’s school an A or a B.

This affection for neighborhood schools is understandable. After all, parents tend to know and like their schools, and that most  have already chosen their schools in some fashion. Schools also serve as valued community hubs, an experience that children and parents share, a place to hold social gatherings and civic events, and a unifying force where people build relationships and community.

But while Americans are happy with their schools, they are harshly critical of the nation’s public schools as a whole. Between 1981 and 2017, PDK asked Americans to rate the nation’s public schools, and the grades have been consistently dismal. In 1981, just 20 percent of Americans gave the nation’s schools an A or B; in 2017, it was still only 24 percent. The number fell as low as 16 percent and never exceeded 28 percent. One gets the sense that choice advocates tend to look to this number when they blast “failing schools” and call for bold disruption.

Whatever their concerns about the nation’s schools, though, most parents do not want their own kids’ schools boldly disrupted. A 2017 Associated Press–NORC Center for Public Affairs poll asked how students should be assigned to schools: 67 percent of respondents wanted students to attend schools based on their neighborhood. In short, two-thirds expressly endorsed the kind of “zip-code schooling” that choice advocates routinely denounce. Just 8 percent of respondents wanted students assigned to school via a lottery (the way charter schools, for instance, admit students).

The latent tension between affection for neighborhood schools and support for school choice may be most evident when Americans are asked what should be done about “failing” schools. For instance, between 1999 and 2002, PDK asked, “Which one of these two plans would you prefer — improving and strengthening the existing public schools or providing vouchers for parents to use in selecting and paying for private and/or church related schools?” Each time PDK asked the question, between two-thirds and three-quarters of respondents endorsed “improving public schools,” rejecting the more disruptive option. In a one-off question asked in 2013, PDK found that 84 percent of respondents opposed closing a school that has been failing “for a number of years.”

Americans may hesitate when it comes to proposals that promise to disrupt their own communities and schools, but they embrace the principle that parents should be able to choose their child’s school.

For all this, Americans strongly favor less disruptive choice proposals. In 2002, for instance, 86 percent of respondents told PDK that they would allow students to transfer out of a school that is not making progress. In 2011, 74 percent said that parents should be able to pick a public school in their community. Americans may hesitate when it comes to proposals that promise to disrupt their own communities and schools, but they embrace the principle that parents should be able to choose their child’s school — and agree that no child should be trapped in a lousy school.

Much of the bold rhetoric employed on behalf of contemporary school choice may do more to alienate than to attract supporters. Talk of failing schools, Uber-style disruption, and market competition is off-putting to parents and voters who support choice in principle but also like their local schools, are skeptical of educational disruption, and don’t want to see children shuttled about like freight. And we’ve seen plenty of first-hand evidence that the more aggressive talking points can drown out arguments better calibrated to connect with those parents and voters who have a soft spot for both school choice and their local schools.

School choice may fare best when presented as an opportunity for those who want it rather than an agenda to radically transform schools. And the dirty little secret is that such rhetoric doesn’t actually involve giving up much, because successful choice proposals show a practical bent and aren’t designed to spur the transformation or Uberization of schooling. A more grounded message may not feel quite as stirring for passionate pundits, urgent advocates, and enthusiastic funders, but may  ultimately be a more promising path forward.

Frederick M. Hess is director of education policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute. Sofia Gallo is a research assistant at AEI.


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