When the teachers’ unions mounted a pitched battle to keep schools closed or minimally functioning during the COVID pandemic, they did not intend that the period that revealed the depth and breadth of their power should coincide with unprecedented success for the school-choice movement they have opposed for decades.
Yet that is what occurred.
In many sectors, a year-plus that halted social and economic trajectories was an impetus for reevaluation and served to accelerate trends already in motion. Campaigns intended to open broader educational options to a larger spectrum of children were no exception and, as parents around the country struggled with limited options for their public school students, a wave of legislation that launched and expanded school-choice programs swelled through the year.
The past 10 years have seen a steady ascent for the movement, with results mostly felt in Republican-controlled states, but the 2020-2021 legislative year set records for aggregate gains. Seven states introduced new programs, and 14 expanded 21 existing ones. The new laws run the gamut including tax-credit scholarship, vouchers and Educational Savings Accounts (ESAs), as well as lifting caps on charter schools.
“This year we not only saw more bills passed than ever before, we saw ones that were bigger in terms of eligibility and bolder in terms of the degree of freedom that some of them give parents in directing their children’s education,” said Jason Bedrick, Director of Policy at EdChoice, a national leading school-choice advocacy organization. “Obviously, the pandemic had a large role to play in moving this along, but an important piece is not only in statehouses. Over the pandemic, we’ve seen the highest levels of support for school choice in public opinion yet.”
The numbers supporting school choice have trended up for more than a decade, but over the pandemic, according to some polls, they got a 10-point boost from prior levels; and a survey by Real Clear Opinion Research showed 71% of voters backed school-choice programs. While the sway of teachers’ union lobbyists and campaign funding keeps many Democrats from supporting the movement, the poll showed that 69% of Democratic voters had favorable opinions about school choice.
There is widespread agreement that the pandemic deserves the lion’s share of credit for the surge in support and legislative victories, yet the theory has several angles.
Rabbi A.D. Motzen, Agudath Israel of America’s Director of State Relations, said that the universal nature of the pandemic shifted the opinions of many legislators.
“Legislators were also home with their kids this year. They didn’t need testimony; they saw firsthand the difference between private schools that were open and unions fighting to keep public schools closed,” he said. “School choice advocates said that parents need options, and when those legislators heard the same pushback from unions, a lot more were willing to tell them, ‘We don’t care.’”
As scientific evidence became increasingly clear that school-age students were unlikely to suffer severe consequences from COVID infection and that schools were not major vectors of transmission, municipalities and district boards that acquiesced to the demands of the national American Federation of Teachers (AFT), the National Education Association (NEA) and other local union branches to minimize in-person learning fell under scrutiny from parent advocacy groups. The same poll that tracked the rise in support for school choice showed that 47% of respondents had a less favorable opinion of the unions than before the pandemic, while 36% said their judgment of them was more favorable.
Mr. Bedrick said that the situation led to a surge of grassroots parent activism.
“A lot of parents saw teachers’ unions fighting to keep schools closed while they wanted them open, and the unions usually won those fights. Those parents realized that their schools are more accountable to a special interest than to them,” he said.
Mr. Bedrick said that the pandemic’s disruptive quality in and of itself was another factor in mobilizing parent advocacy.
“When you’re in the system, most people stick with the default option, but when the pandemic came, parents had to make choices and found out a lot more about options, be they private schools, or charter schools, learning pods and so on,” he said. “Families took a greater interest and more control over education, which fueled a lot more engagement on the political level.”
Even with the social winds blowing in school choice’s favor during the pandemic, with many legislative offices working remotely and visitors and lobbyists barred from statehouses, it would seem to be a difficult period to move an agenda item promoted by advocacy and parent rallies.
Yet Rabbi Shlomo Soroka, Agudah’s Illinois director, said that just the opposite was true, as parents and lobbyists who made the trek to ghost town capitols delivered a far stronger message.
“The very fact that parents made the trip for the chance of catching a lawmaker coming out of a building said a lot about how much this meant to them,” he said.
The past year saw more than its share of politically charged debates that, while ostensibly unconnected to school choice, some feel helped to energize the movement.
Amid anti-police protests and riots following the death of George Floyd last summer, demonstrators and those supporting them trumpeted a narrative of explaining American history and society through what they labeled “systemic racism.” Since then, many on the political left have pushed educators to teach the past though the lens of an approach known as critical race theory (CRT).
At its annual conference, the NEA endorsed a plan to encourage incorporation of CRT into classrooms and earmarked funds to train staff to push back against opposition. AFT chief Randi Weingarten characterized those opposing the classroom use of revisionist theories as “bullying teachers.” Earlier this year, she also faced criticism for using a Marxist, antisemitic trope to push back against Jewish groups that called for more schools to open over the pandemic.
While the CRT has had a place in higher education for some time, city school systems and some local boards introducing the highly controversial approach into K-12 classrooms sparked grassroots opposition across the country.
No stranger to charged political battles over education policy, former Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos penned an opinion piece in the New York Post arguing that the promotion of ideologically colored curricula evidenced the need to provide students with more options.
“Choice not only gives parents control, but also forces the public-school monopoly to be more responsive to its customers: parents and taxpayers. Public-school leaders would probably be a lot less likely to jam political agendas down the throats of young students if they knew parents had agency to enroll their children elsewhere,” she wrote.
The argument was picked up by many in conservative circles, and several observers have suggested that CRT and the politicization of schools played a significant role in moving parents and Republican legislators to push through more robust school choice bills.
Dan Mitzner, Director of State Political Affairs for the Orthodox Union’s Teach Coalition, said that the general political atmosphere plus challenges of the pandemic have produced higher levels of political engagement by parents.
“There’s no question that we’ve seen record numbers of parents getting involved in advocacy work, which continues to grow as they see how important their voice is,” he said. “People are motivated by different topics, but in general, the county is more polarized and that leads to more political activism.”
Rabbi Motzen said that a more subtle political element that contributed to the banner year was the emphasis that the Trump administration, most notably Ms. DeVos and former Vice President Mike Pence, placed on school choice.
“Like any complicated issue, there will always be multiple factors, but the fact that for the past four years you had a Secretary of Education talking about the issue and a President and Vice President who used their megaphone to make school choice a topic and who pushed governors and legislative leaders on the issue, moved the dial. They might not have been successful with the federal [school- choice] bill, but putting the discussion at the highest level forced people to think about where they stood on the issue,” he said.
A Book With Many Chapters
One achievement that took many school-choice advocates by surprise was Missouri’s passage of a bill creating tax-credit Educational Savings Accounts for low- and middle-income families.
The state’s school-choice efforts have been stymied for over 15 years, held up largely by use of the filibuster in its senate chamber. This year, new leadership in the Republican majorities made passing the program a high priority, and despite grim predictions, the measure managed to squeak through both chambers of the legislature and was signed by Governor Mike Parson.
“There were a couple of champions who, year in year out, did not give up,” said Rabbi Soroka, who was involved in advocacy for the Missouri law. “Even with leadership prioritizing it and all the COVID frustration, it was not enough to get it over the finish line without some drama.”
For several years, Ohio has steadily expanded its robust school-choice programs. Amid the national trend, the state introduced a new tax-credit scholarship with universal eligibility for the city of Cleveland, and significantly expanded several existing programs.
The changes were buoyed by an exceptional year for state tax coffers and education funds granted as part of one of the COVID stimulus packages passed last year. Two key shifts lowered the income level required to qualify for one of its widely used scholarship programs as well as increasing the amount granted.
“We have a coalition that has been pursuing these changes for a while and between the effects of the pandemic and robust state revenue, it was a good year to get them done,” said Rabbi Yitz Frank, Agudah’s Ohio director. “The goal is to get the income-based programs to become universal, and I think we are a lot closer to that now.”
Starting in earnest during former Governor Jeb Bush’s tenure, Florida has been a national leader in school choice. In recent years, the trend has continued with its GOP-controlled government steadily broadening its programs.
This year, two key gains for the Orthodox community especially were a hike in the eligible income levels which will allow many large families that are middle-class earners to qualify and the elimination of a public school enrollment requirement from a program to aid children with disabilities.
“It’s a huge thing for our schools,” said Rabbi Moshe Matz, Agudah’s Florida director. “The frum community does not have its own special-needs school here, and this will allow them to provide far better services to these students.”
Florida has seen a significant influx of families moving to the state, including many Orthodox ones that have swelled the Miami community in recent years.
Dan Aqua, who serves as the OU’s Teach Coalition’s Florida representative, said that robust school-choice programs have played a significant role in the phenomenon. He cited recent data that enrollment in the state’s Jewish schools is up by 20%.
“There have been a lot of families moving here, and a big part of that is not only what the programs have done for families’ finances, but how much they have done to improve the quality of education in our schools,” he said.
Winning an Uphill Battle
With two exceptions, the long list of states that enacted new school-choice programs or expanded existing ones are led by Republican governors who encouraged the moves. One of those exceptions was Pennsylvania, where despite opposition to the program from Democratic Governor Tom Wolfe, as part of a budget agreement with the state’s Republican-controlled legislature, $40 million was added to the state’s tax credit scholarships.
The OU’s Mr. Minzer, who was engaged in advocacy in Pennsylvania, said that roughly 50% of the state’s Jewish day school students are beneficiaries of the program, which he called “the lifeblood” of those institutions. He added that despite national political winds, the program’s bipartisan popularity was key to its success.
“Despite what anyone says, these programs work. The performance is high, and demand is high on both sides. Democrats and Republicans were behind the program in the legislature because they know constituents want it,” said Mr. Minzer.
Illinois is one of the few solid blue states to boast a school-choice program, which was enacted under Republican former Governor Bruce Rauner. While the program has not seen expansions, every year it continues to exist under Democratic Governor J.B. Pritzker, who campaigned in 2018 on defunding “Invest in Kids,” it is a win for school-choice advocates.
Amid another round of lobbying by teachers’ unions and other opponents to end the program and initial fears the pandemic would slash tax revenue, Governor Pritzker proposed a major cut that would have greatly reduced the program’s reach. Yet, with intense advocacy and far better revenue than anticipated, the scholarships emerged from budget negotiations with funding steady. Of equal if not greater significance, the program’s planned sunset was postponed by one year.
Rabbi Soroka said that the most effective message was the torrent of letters and personal appeals by parents who have benefited from the scholarships.
“Teachers’ unions have a lot of influence, but believe it or not, politicians have a heart also,” he said. “They told us that we humanized the issue, and that got us support from some very unlikely sources. During the pandemic, school was a lifeline to so many people. One very progressive lawmaker told us that as a parent, they would want to have other options than public school.”
Got to Be in It to Win It
Even with the confluence of factors pushing school-choice bills, there was one element that advocates said was a prerequisite for success.
“Legislation this size doesn’t happen haphazardly. It wasn’t that anybody suddenly decided, ‘Let’s pass school-choice legislation.’ Every state where these bills passed, there had been people spending years drafting bills and trying to get them passed, running up against whatever roadblocks were in the way, sometimes for decades. But now, when the opportunity opened up, the states that had a coordinated effort of parents and advocates in place were the ones that were successful,” said Rabbi Motzen.
West Virginia’s well entrenched school-choice advocates achieved a huge win, taking the state from one that had no choice programs to universally offering ESAs to all students switching out of public school or entering kindergarten or first grade. Kentucky was another such case, where years of unfruitful efforts struck success this year, though its victory was not without drama. Under pressure from teachers unions, its Democratic Governor Andy Beshear vetoed a tax-credit scholarship program only to be overridden by the legislature.
Mr. Bedrick pointed to North Dakota and Wyoming as examples of states where there was significant interest in introducing school- choice legislation, but the lack of advocacy infrastructure made it too heavy a lift.
While the past year’s achievements will likely not be replicated soon, Mr. Bedrick was confident that the movement would continue to grow.
“We’ve hit a tipping point,” he said. “The main objection to school choice was that it would hurt public school systems, but by now you have states like Arizona that have had school choice for two decades with a large number of students participating, and public schools have not collapsed; in fact they’re getting better faster than in other states. It’s one of many emerging proofs that educational choice is the tide that lifts all boats.” n
Maine Woodsmen Fight for School Choice at the Supreme Court
While the confluence of factors buoying school choice played out in statehouses, it seems likely that the movement is poised to get an additional boost next year from the Supreme Court.
At the end of their last term, the justices announced that they will hear the case of Maine parents claiming that a state program that gives them money for their children’s education but prohibits the funds from going to religious institutions violates their Constitutional rights.
Based on a recent precedent, they seem likely to succeed. In 2017, the court ruled 7-2 that a program in Missouri that funded rubber playground padding to schools but excluded religious ones ran afoul of the Constitution. Last year, a 5-4 majority struck down a state court ruling that had nixed a Montana scholarship program that gave modest grants for private school tuition that could be used in secular or religious institutions.
The court is likely poised to take its approach even further in the coming term with Carson v. Makin, where it will consider whether Maine parents who live in rural areas where there is no district school and receive a state grant can spend that money at religious institutions, something they are presently prohibited from doing.
The Montana case was widely seen as a referendum against the Constitutionality of “Blaine Amendments,” provisions that ban state funding of religious schools.
Should the Maine parents prevail, it could be yet another major victory in the decades- long battle waged by school-choice advocates and supporters of religious schooling to wipe the amendments from the books.