Chicago government schools are a disaster. Only 13% of 8th graders are proficient in math, 17% proficient in reading, the high school graduation rate is a little over 50%, and 6% of kids go on to get college degrees. In March, the Illinois Senate led by Reverend Senator James Meeks (D- Chicago) passed legislation to provide vouchers for kids in the worst Chicago public elementary schools to attend private schools. When the measure reached the House in May, Chicago Democrat Representative Ken Dunkin pleaded: “I’m begging you. Help me help kids in my district.”
If passed, the legislation would likely have produced the nation’s largest voucher program. However, nearly 50% of all House Republicans helped the Democrat leadership kill the measure. Why?
Unfortunately, much of the GOP is controlled or intimated by the government school education establishment (the “Establishment”) with respect to education policy. Even if not owned by the Establishment, many GOP elected officials fear that merely uttering the words “school choice” would cause the teacher unions and their allies to organize to end their careers. Making matters worse, GOP candidates and elected officials are plagued by political and policy advisors who are misinformed about school choice or who are entirely sympathetic or beholden to the Establishment.
In addition, many Republican leaders are not properly educated about the application of conservative principles in education through school choice. Suburban and rural Republicans do not realize the significant cost savings associated with school choice and how dollars will not be taken away from the government schools in their districts to support school choice elsewhere. They also don’t understand that choice students are primarily served by private schools in their own communities and will not overrun the schools in their districts.
What can the GOP do?
First, the GOP can embrace the conservative principles of freedom in education. If grassroots GOP leaders asked parents whether they favor being able to use their tax dollars (say $11,000 per pupil) and choose for themselves between their mandated government school and a school of their choice (including religious and non-religious private schools), they would find that most favor freedom in education. Furthermore, Republicans need to get the facts on costs. Studies of school choice programs reveal substantial cost savings to taxpayers including those who do not have children in school.
Second, the GOP needs to educate its elected members about what school choice means in practical application. First and foremost, it does not lead to a flood of inner city children into suburban or rural schools. Since choice children have the option to attend high quality private schools in their own communities, why would they choose mediocre government schools in the suburbs or private schools outside of their communities?
Finally, the GOP can reach out to faith-based and community organizations, school choice organizations, younger teachers hurt by the government school monopoly, and businesses to galvanize and empower parents to fight for school choice at the ballot box. Black and Hispanic faith-based and community leaders are beginning to understand that it is their purpose and calling (not the secular inefficient government) to provide hope and a quality education to the least of these in the neighborhoods where they live. GOP candidates and elected officials need to listen to conservative policy and political advisors on education policy to help these communities. By embracing freedom in education, the GOP will secure electoral majorities comprised of diverse voters including conservatives, libertarians, tea party supporters, blacks, Hispanics, businesses and young and high achieving teachers.
Ultimately, the GOP needs strong voices in the states like newly elected Republican Governor Christie in New Jersey. Governor Christie has unapologetically challenged the Establishment and advanced school choice. If all GOP leaders embraced Christie’s message, the GOP would revolutionize education policy by applying time tested free market principles.
Is the GOP listening? If not, they stand to lose this issue to black and Hispanic Democrats who are willing to take on the Establishment while the GOP remains unwilling to apply sound conservative principles for the benefit of disadvantaged children.
Shayam K. Menon is an attorney in private practice in Washington, D.C. and is a former director of the Center for Faith-Based and Community Initiatives at the U.S. Department of Education where he primarily worked on school choice matters.