School choice in the United States was once a bipartisan cause, championed by individuals as diverse as Milton Friedman and liberal Democrats in California. But in the interceding decades, support for the issue has become far more polarized. And some fear that the nationalization of the issue, as embodied by Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos and President Trump, may have served only to deepen this divide. Are there ways to broaden the school-choice coalition even in the current era of hyper-partisanship?
To help answer that question, the Wisconsin Institute for Law & Liberty conducted a statewide survey experiment of 1,500 Wisconsinites. Our results show that school choice is indeed popular — but also that the words used to describe it are vitally important.
When it comes to school choice, Wisconsin is a good state to study for a number of reasons. It is a purple state, an integral part of the Trump coalition, and home to the nation’s oldest school-voucher program. Wisconsinites represent a cross-section of our nation and have extensive experience with school choice that may not be found in other parts of the country.
We asked respondents whether they supported private school choice, but varied the descriptions we gave them. Respondents were provided messages about the effect of private school choice on test scores and graduation rates, racial diversity, school safety, an education with traditional values and civic virtue, and equal opportunity. In sum, we wanted to find out if certain groups could be moved to support private school choice based on characteristics of the program that perhaps they hadn’t encountered before.
A message about traditional value and civic virtue worked to drive up support among Republicans. But perhaps more surprisingly, among Democrats and minorities, messages about how school choice can increase racial diversity in schools and effectively level the playing field for low-income students increased support substantially. A slim majority — 51 percent — of Democrats expressed support for vouchers when told about their implications for diversity, compared with only 29 percent in the baseline condition where they only received a simple definition. Among independents, a message that private schools can be safer than traditional public schools increased support by about 15 points. These messages moved support above the 50 percent threshold among groups for which support for private school choice is traditionally lower, suggesting that there is ample space for education reformers to convince a broader audience of the value of education reform.
Among the messages that didn’t work is one that is near and dear to the hearts of many education reformers: information about test scores. Perhaps dishearteningly to some, most people in our survey were unmoved in their support for private school choice by information that test scores tend to be higher in choice schools.
These findings make sense in light of social-psychology research showing that people from different ideological perspectives process information in different ways. Conservatives are more interested in patriotic messages, while liberals are more interested in concepts such as fairness. It is only natural that the way in which we process information changes the manner in which we speak about issues like school choice. And as conservatives have come to dominate the education-reform agenda, their language has come to dominate the public discussion.
To broaden the tent for school-choice support, it is vital that education reformers broaden their messages to include some of those identified in our experiment. Only then will the education-reform agenda be safe from the winds of political change.