Education

American Families Want More School Choice

Senator Tim Scott (R., S.C.) questions witnesses during a Senate Committee meeting in Washington, D.C., May 12, 2020. (Toni L. Sandys/Reuters)
A new survey of likely voters in five key swing states found that respondents, especially nonwhite Americans, tend to favor expanded school-choice options.

Since the COVID-19 pandemic began sweeping across the country, school closures have been one of the biggest challenges America has faced. As a result of the economic fallout from shutdown orders, some schools have had to close down permanently. Many have transitioned fully to online learning, a particular difficulty for working parents, and others have attempted to pioneer safe ways to reopen schools for in-person class this fall.

Against this backdrop, public debates over school choice have taken on a new sense of urgency, especially as objections from teachers’ unions and policies from local government have rendered many public schools unable to reopen. A new survey commissioned by the Manhattan Institute suggests that, in five key swing states, Americans are taking a new look at how increased school choice might benefit their families.

The poll was conducted by Rasmussen Reports between late August and early September, surveying about 5,000 likely voters in five key swing states: Pennsylvania, Ohio, Wisconsin, Michigan, and North Carolina. The survey found that between two-thirds and three-quarters of those voters support publicly funded K–12 school choice.

Interestingly, and consistent with past surveys, that support was higher among black respondents in every state except North Carolina. In Wisconsin and Michigan, for instance, black voters were more likely, by seven percentage points, than overall respondents to say they “strongly support” publicly funded school-choice programs.

In every state but North Carolina, meanwhile, black voters were also much more likely to say that their state gave parents too little choice in deciding where to send their children to school. In all five states, a plurality of black voters said they had too little choice, and in Ohio, Wisconsin, and Michigan, a plurality of overall respondents said the same.

Only about one-fifth of voters in all five states, by contrast, believe that giving parents more choice in their children’s education would lower educational quality, and black respondents were more likely than overall respondents to say that school choice raises educational quality.

Across all five swing states, somewhere between 51 percent and 62 percent of voters said they support state-funded charter schools as an alternative to district-managed public schools, and that support was higher among black respondents, whose support for such funding fell between 58 percent and 67 percent.

This latest survey confirms what plenty of recent polling has shown: By and large, most voters, and especially nonwhite voters, are far more supportive of increased school choice than the Democratic Party is. A poll from this past spring found that 67 percent of African Americans and 63 percent of Hispanics said they support school choice. Those same demographic groups were the most likely of any to support a federal tax-credit scholarship program; close to three-quarters of each group say they’d back such a plan. Since the pandemic began, Republicans have made a bit of progress in appealing to those voters more effectively.

For one thing, Senators Tim Scott (R., S.C.) and Lamar Alexander (R., Tenn.) offered a bill during congressional negotiating over COVID-19 relief funding that would redirect some of that funding to school-choice programs. Tying it to the economic harms and school shutdowns was wise, because it signaled to families who might not traditionally support conservative politicians that the GOP was taking seriously their concerns about being able to continue sending their children to the schools that are best for them.

If the bill were to take effect, 10 percent of federal coronavirus-relief funding authorized by the CARES (Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security) Act would be redirected to state block grants, which states could then use to fund scholarship organizations. Such programs offer families direct educational assistance, enabling them to cover the costs of private-school tuition or other expenses such as tutoring or homeschooling.

What’s more, the bill would create a permanent federal tax-credit scholarship program, offering federal taxpayers dollar-for-dollar tax credits for any contributions they make to scholarship-granting organizations. A handful of states have pioneered similar programs for state taxpayers with great success.

In the wake of the pandemic, several states created new school-choice programs or expanded existing ones, aiming to address concerns from parents about keeping their children in school or obtaining the best learning options for them despite the pandemic.

In South Carolina, the Republican governor announced a new grant program, funded by some of the state’s CARES Act relief money, which is offering 5,000 one-time grants of up to $6,500 for low-income students who attend private or independent schools.

In Oklahoma, GOP governor Kevin Stitt allocated CARES Act funding to the state education department, to a large technical school in the state to enable some full scholarships, to a fund for low-income students attending private schools, to a program offering stipends to low-income students, and to a state initiative allowing more students to access digital-education content.

In Pennsylvania, legislators have proposed using CARES Act funding to create education scholarship accounts, offering a set number of low-income families $1,000 per child to be spent on approved expenses such as tuition costs, tutoring, and online classes.

School choice hasn’t figured heavily in this year’s election cycle, but the Trump administration has backed some key policy proposals that are popular in the school-choice movement, including the idea of a federal tax-credit scholarship program.

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