The Democratic Case for School Choice, and How It's Defying Traditional Party Breakdowns

Kelley Bolar-Williams probably wishes she lived in Colorado.

The Akron, Ohio mother was sent to jail last month for tampering with records so her kids could go to a better school in another district. Had she lived in the Centennial State, she would have been able to take advantage of a state law that allows children to attend any public school, regardless of where they live.

But for many families, even that would not have been enough. Factoring in additional costs associated with traveling further to a different school, and it becomes clear that low-income families need help when it comes to getting better educational options. Bolar-Williams' story is compelling in the way that it has united outraged partisans on both sides of the aisle in support of the Ohio mom. It has injected something of a twist into the traditional narrative about school choice: that Republicans support it and Democrats don't.

There have been historical political trends regarding school choice--which includes, but is not limited to, charter schools, private school vouchers, and scholarship tax credits--and regardless of party, the opposition sticks to a familiar script. Why they're against it runs the gamut: the entrenched position of teachers' unions as superlative donors to Democratic campaigns, fear from opponents that public funds may be used in religious schools, and a worry from some public school teachers that losing kids most prone to seek out scholarships and vouchers will ultimately create a worse environment for those that stay in public schools.

The reality, however, is much different. The organized opposition to school choice may argue that it's not good for their jobs, but they can't argue with the fact that it is good for kids. Comprehensive studies measuring the effectiveness of school choice programs in three disparate parts of the country (Milwaukee, Florida, and Washington, D.C.) last year showed immense gains in graduation rates, standardized test score performance, or both. And the fiscal case against school choice falls flat--generally, public schools keep a portion of the per-pupil spending when a child leaves a district for a charter school or a private school, meaning that the amount of funding for traditional public school students actually increases as a result of school choice programs. And there is no agenda behind the bulk of advocates for school choice, other than a commitment to the fundamental idea that every child deserves access to a quality education as a basic civil right.

As more and more Democrats have embraced that simple fact--that it's unfair to punish some children because of things over which they have no control, like we're they're born--the party has seen a massive increase in the number of school choice supporters. Morality knows no politics, and many have seen their moral compass point them in the direction of giving children a chance. Democratic mayors, governors, and elected officials in legislative bodies both in Washington and in the states have begun to embrace doing what's best for kids.

And there are some underlying facts about school choice that show some significant consistencies between the modern-day school choice and progressive movements. Think about school choice at its core--an infusion of funds into the education sphere, targeted largely at low-income children and those with special needs, in order to grant them better opportunities than they'd otherwise have access to. These programs are often centered in especially urban areas, the bastions of Democratic voting blocs, and they often disproportionately target minorities, another loyal constituency for progressive candidates.

It's no coincidence that the director of the education documentary Waiting for "Superman" is the same director of An Inconvenient Truth, the rallying cry for environmentalists that helped former Democratic Vice President Al Gore win a Nobel Peace Prize. And Democrats are so prone to preach about choice in other, socially divisive contexts; should choice not exist when it comes to education? There's nothing particularly polarizing about the idea of creating a generation of higher-achieving Americans that are better equipped to compete for jobs and opportunities both at home and globally.

I'm sure Republicans support this issue for a multitude of reasons as well. Democrats must remember that it is intrinsically at the center of some of the party's core beliefs. It is one of the most legitimate opportunities where meaningful bipartisan legislation can take shape. All that, and it's the right thing to do.

Malcom Glenn is a communications coordinator at the American Federation for Children, a national education advocacy organization that promotes school choice, and at the Alliance for School Choice, a nonprofit organization that educates policy-makers and the public on school choice programs. He is coauthor of the Alliance's School Choice Yearbook 2010-11, which was released this week.