Opinion: Daily Journal

Time to reject political polarization on school choice

To understand the educational zeitgeist of voters, start here: Most want choice and change. Republican or Democrat? Gen Xer or millennial? It doesn’t matter much. Views on initiatives or implementation may differ, but conceptually, school choice garners broad bipartisan support. It’s time to push past political polarization in rhetoric and debate. Ideas, not ideology, are winning the day.   

Times and minds have changed. The school choice movement’s effect on education has been propulsive, driving enrollment and expectations. Choice has disrupted tradition, reshaped the market. Change is a constant. Families are customers. 

A new federal report, School Choice in the United States 2019provides long-term proof on enrollment claims. Culling years of data, the report shows choice has been a major engine of enrollment growth nationwide, fueling maverick models of schooling. Public charter growth is the stuff of reformers’ dreams, skyrocketing 571% between 2000 and 2016. Homeschool enrollment nearly doubled. Most students, 47 million, still attend traditional public schools, but enrollment has increased just 1%. Private school enrollment decreased 4% during similar timeframes.   

Voters’ attitudes defy partisan pigeonholing. A new poll from Education Reform Now of likely 2020 voters show 57% want “new ideas” and “real changes” in how public schools operate, in addition to more funding. Eight in 10 Democratic primary voters and nearly nine in 10 black Democratic primary voters want expanded access to choices and options in public education, including charter schools.   

A mainstream mantra, for education: Choice. Change. Now.    

Voters’ attitudes have staying power beyond the next election. Millennials and parents lead the charge on choice. A 2019 American Federation for Children survey of likely 2020 voters found 75% of millennials favor the concept of school choice, compared to 67% of Gen Xers and 64% of baby boomers. Seventy-two percent of parents favor school choice.   

North Carolina’s enrollment trends track the nation’s, with some exceptions. Data reveal an almost 600% increase in charter enrollment and a 319% uptick in homeschool enrollment between 2000 and 2018. Traditional public enrollment increased 16% overall during this period but began declining in 2015.  

Private enrollment here is a national anomaly, increasing 14% since 2000. The big engine of growth is a form of private school choice  the Opportunity Scholarship Program, North Carolina’s voucher initiative. Private enrollment began declining in 2008, but rebounded in 2014-15, when Opportunity Scholarships launched. Last year, 9,651 low-income students, 9% of the state’s private school population, used these tuition scholarships to attend private schools. 

North Carolina voters support both public and private school choice programs. According to a 2019 Civitas poll, 76% express some support for public charter schools, 33% of them strongly. Fully 85% of N.C. voters support Opportunity Scholarships, 51% of them strongly.   

Fundamentally, the concept of school choice tracks with cultural and marketplace trends. “Our whole culture is going to more choice,” says Lindalyn Kakadelis, board chair of the N.C. Coalition for Charter Schools and member of N.C.’s Charter Schools Advisory Board 

“‘Don’t assign me by zip code’  that’s so antiquated. We’re changing the culture of thought. That’s different from putting in programs.”   

People worried choice would destroy public education, says Kakadelis, but “it’s going to make it better. Treating children and families as customers? That’s not a bad thing.” Public schools are doing more marketing, she adds.  

For millennials, supporting choice is intuitive; many grew up around it. “Instead of a foreigner to school choice, they are a native,” says Kakadelis. “I don’t think we’ll go backward.” 

Time to move forward. Pushing past political polarization on school choice? Politicians and ideologues, take note. Most voters already have.

Kristen Blair is a Chapel Hill-based education writer.