Today’s toxic political climate can make it difficult to separate the popularity of a policy from a polarizing personality associated with it. But in the case of parental choice in education, a sizable number of voters appears to be doing just that.
Most states have embraced policies such as public charter schools and publicly-funded private school scholarships to open doors of educational opportunity for qualifying children. Not until President Donald Trumpnominated Michigan philanthropist Betsy DeVos to serve as secretary of the Department of Education, though, did school choice start to receive so much intense, unrelenting and often misleading scrutiny.
DeVos has used her bully pulpit from the nation's capital to proclaim the important message that it’s “the inalienable right and responsibility of parents to choose the learning environment that best meets their child’s individual needs.” As part of a broader attack on the secretary, high-profile opponents of parental choice have served up stories and claims that distort how choice programs work and the results they have achieved.
The coordinated efforts to personalize and scapegoat DeVos as a high-profile target have resulted in low popularity ratings for her. Yet her signature issue of giving parents a broader range of effective learning options is popular — within her home state and across the nation.
The annual Education Next poll provides the most rigorous and accurate barometer of where Americans stand on many prominent issues that affect students and schools. Among the cross-section of 4,600 voters interviewed this year, school choice is more favored than opposed.
The National Education Association and various media outlets trumpeted last year’s drop in support for charter schools, which are authorized in 44 states and the District of Columbia. But in 2018, the numbers in favor of charters have climbed back toward earlier levels, mostly as a result of rising support from Republicans.
Another avenue for choice registered stronger bipartisan agreement. Republicans and Democrats expressed support, by an identical 58 percent, for giving tax credits to donors who provide students with private tuition scholarships. These programs, operating in 18 states, often afford needier families more options to educate their kids, without accepting dollars from the government treasury.
Burdened with a state constitutional measure that prohibits specific kinds of private school choice, Michigan is not counted among the 18 states. Still, a recent Mackinac Center survey found that support among 800 Michigan voters for tax-credit scholarships was nearly as high as the national result: 54 percent. When asked if they favor the plan for low-income students, special-needs students, or even all students, the rate of support jumped to over 70 percent.
And 59 percent — including 83 percent of those ages 18-34 — would back a plan to give parents flexible state-funded education savings accounts. Five states offer these accounts to benefit children with recognized disabilities.
Giving families the ability to select and pay for services and tools that would help their special-needs children likely would prove as popular in Michigan as it has been in Arizona and Florida. After all, out of 50 states, ours was the only one with special education services rated badly enough that the U.S. Department of Education says it needs to intervene.
At least for now, though, private school choice is mostly just an abstract concept for Michigan voters. Critics might speculate that lack of experience is why so many people say they like these programs. But extensive experience with charters in DeVos’s home state, which have garnered more than their share of withering attacks, has done little to undercut their popularity. Michigan’s support for charters bests opposition by 18 points.
By a margin of 55 to 39 percent, Michigan voters reject the argument that choice harms traditional public schools. Their perceptions match what nearly all research tells us, despite repeated attempts to attack charters and other options with a brush designed to rile up public school parents and employees.
In Detroit, where as many students attend charter schools as stay in the district, voters are mostly neutral or somewhat favorable toward charters. But 58 percent of Detroiters also believe the state offers too little choice. The city’s charters provide better results, on average, for less money. While plenty of room for improvement remains for these schools, being pushed back into a district with an abysmal record is not an option for most students.
Both in Michigan and the nation as a whole, educational choice has withstood blistering assaults these past couple years. But that may just show it’s easier to tarnish a public figure who champions a policy helping millions of kids than it is to tarnish the policy itself.