The “Choice” Issue Voters Truly Care About

THOSE SO QUICK TO SAY that the government should stay out of the “choice” issue have it right – when they are referring to schools, anyway. For the fourth straight year, “education” leads the polls as the nation’s top priority. Among likely voters, education ranks first on a list of issues “most important to you in deciding how to vote.” Abortion? Eleventh, besting only campaign finance reform as the top concern.

Twenty years ago, with Communism, inflation and unemployment as front-burner concerns, education was a sleeper issue. Only a handful of people (3%-5%) would cite education as the most pressing challenge when asked to do so in an open-ended question. However, in the latest installment of the bipartisan Hotline-Bullseye poll (August 2000), 31% of likely voters nationwide cited education and schools as one of the “three most important issues to you in this presidential campaign.” In the 1980’s the enemy was situated half way around the world in the Soviet Union; today, many Americans believe the greatest threat to our security exists within our own classrooms.

It follows, then, that significant numbers of voters favor measures like charter schools, teacher testing, and tax credits for private scholarships. The most popular reform in the education arena is school choice. For years, national polls have shown that two-thirds of those surveyed favor allowing parents greater control over where their children attend school and what is taught there, and notable majorities approve descriptions of specific provisions and programs to accomplish this.

The backing for school choice cuts across all major demographic, geographic and attitudinal lines, with people of all ages, races, income and education levels, and both genders showing significant endorsement. Most notably, minority parents voice majority support for school choice, a significant break with the Democratic party orthodoxy that places the demands of teachers’ unions before the needs of inner-city students.

Oftentimes, the public’s appetite for an attractive idea wanes when specific details are revealed. Witness the unraveling of the Clinton “health care security” plan. It was introduced in 1993 to 75% public support; yet upon full disclosure, a majority of voters and President Clinton’s own Democratic Congress rejected it one year later.

This is not the case with education reforms that aim to shift education dollars and dominion from Washington to local officials and parents themselves. Public support for these forms of school choice often intensifies, not erodes, when particular features are explained, and actual accounts of “choice-in-action” through charter schools or private voucher programs are shared. A May 2000 poll conducted by The Washington Post revealed that 63% of registered voters nationwide favor education reform that would “provide parents with more alternatives such as private or charter schools if they don’t want to send their child to a traditional public school.” An astonishing 82% of respondents in the same poll said they favor giving “state and local governments more say in how to spend federal education money” (55% “strongly favor” such a measure).

In one of the few poll questions in this area that cuts through the “happy talk” of “Do you support or oppose improving education?” voters prefer, sometimes by a 2-1 margin, “allowing parents more control over where their child attends school” or “making sure that all of the basics are being taught” as opposed to “have the government spend more money per pupil on instruction and materials” or “pay teachers more and give teachers’ groups more decision-making power”.

The most compelling statistics about school choice and related reforms, of course, are those that tell the tale of how many children can and do benefit from actual programs. In less than a decade since the first one was formed, some 1,700 charter schools operate in 34 states and the District of Columbia. And in cities like Milwaukee, Cleveland and Tampa, to the extent attempted school choice programs have been permitted to flourish, private individuals providing scholarships have empowered thousands of parents to place their children in better schools and encouraged thousands more to place their children on waiting lists to do the same.

Public support and private scholarship success aside, broader implementation of school choice measures face two significant obstacles. The first is the steady stream of legal challenges coming from civil liberties groups, teachers’ unions and other defenders of the status quo. The second major challenge to continued reform demands increased public knowledge about education. Few Americans dispute the poor quality of public schools, but most cannot understand the mind-numbing facts and figures that show the severity of the problem.

Reclamation of the word “choice” would help in the continued communication of these private reforms to the problem of failing schools. “Choice” is a core American value. It is the result of freedom, the predicate for self-reliance and democratic rule, the bud of entrepreneurship and a staple of modern society. For thirty years, the Left has hijacked the word “choice” to soften the communication of their defense of abortion. Now, the same people who claim a woman has the “right to choose” to terminate her pregnancy would deny that same woman five years later the “right to choose” where that child attends school.

Before the next President of the United States influences the educational system, education reform promises to influence who becomes the next president of the United States. Some 75% of likely voters said in a July 2000 Washington Post/ABC News poll that improving schools and education would be a “very important” factor in deciding how to vote in November. Both presidential candidates and their political parties featured education in their respective platforms, and devoted entire portions of their conventions to the topic. To cash in on the political currency attached to education reform, however, candidates must abandon the happy talk of being “for quality education” or “for the kids” (who isn’t, after all?) and offer specifics and solutions.

A common complaint among some voters is that the two major parties are too similar in their policy positions. That may be true with some issues, but on the matter of choice-in-education this year’s candidates demonstrate genuine differences.

Governor Bush is decidedly pro-school choice, and said as much in the remarks he made at this summer’s Republican National Convention. Looking to export some of the education programs he has managed as governor of Texas to the White House, Mr. Bush chided “this administration” for continuing “on the same old path with the same old programs while millions are trapped in schools where violence is common and learning is rare.”

The governor’s plan emphasizes school evaluations, parental choice, and teacher accountability, and seeks to build upon some of the more aggressive reforms attempted by the Republican Congress, including expanding Education Savings Accounts (ESA’s) and doubling the number of charter schools by providing loan guarantees for start-up costs. Mr. Bush and the GOP would allocate monies toward an Educational Technology Fund to boost technology in the classroom, offer Pell grants to low-income students who opt to take accelerated math or science classes, and establish a “Reading First” program to foster reading ability in every disadvantaged child by the third grade.

In contrast, candidate Gore’s education lexicon includes such catchy phrases as “working for smaller class size,” “improving educational opportunities for all Americans,” “fighting for early childhood education,” and “setting national education goals” and an unequivocal hostility toward school choice reforms. He has said, “I will never support private school vouchers, which would drain public money away from public education.”

With the selection of Senator Joseph Lieberman (D-CT), as his vice presidential running-mate, some hoped that Al Gore might now include a more thoughtful examination of the types of reforms Mr. Lieberman has supported. In remarks before the Senate Government Affairs Committee in 1997, Senator Lieberman made clear his position on the state of public education in Washington, DC. He said, “There are some who dismiss suggestions of school choice programs and charter schools out of hand, direly predicting that these approaches will ‘ruin’ the public schools. The undeniable reality is that the system is already in ruins.”

Polls taken at the same time revealed that a majority of adults in DC agreed with Mr. Lieberman. A survey of 400 adults living in the nation’s capital conducted by the polling company™ (R) and Global Strategy Group (D) found that 64% of Washingtonians would send their children to a private school if money were not an issue, and more than one-third (35%) would choose a religious school for their children if they could. Low-income residents were most hopeful (62%) that school choice would improve the quality of their schools. Following the survey, Mr. Lieberman stood on the steps of the U.S. Capitol, and in the well of the Senate, touting the public support for his version of school choice, and sponsoring legislation to implement it. But now Mr. Lieberman stands beside Al Gore who, like President Clinton before him, is closely tied to the teachers’ unions, which are consistent opponents of the principles of choice. Voters may accept genuine differences on policy, but they have a nose for hypocrisy as well. As the Gore-Lieberman campaign moves forward, it may become increasingly difficult for two rich, white men to explain to poor Black mothers why their children should be denied the same quality education that Messrs. Gore, Lieberman and Clinton, and scores of other elected officials and public school teachers have provided their own children.

To date, those with the most to lose through competition and school choice – teachers’ unions and other government employees – have had more dollars and more demagoguery than those who have the most to gain from it. That is beginning to change as reform proponents increase their voice and visibility.

At the same time, heartwarming accounts of school choice successes are beginning to emerge. Students enrolled in charter schools and voucher programs have boosted their test scores and literacy rates, as well as their hope and morale. Even The Washington Post admitted in a recent article that competition has not resulted in the financial disaster some opponents predicted.

Al Gore’s pollsters must be whispering this in his ear. That might explain why he carefully said on August 10, 2000, “If I was [sic] the parent of a child who went to an inner city school that was failing…I might be for vouchers, too.” For the cost of just one of the focus groups that Mr. Gore conducts to find out how to phrase his unpopular views on school choice, several children could afford tuition to a school of their choice for an entire year.

Ms. Fitzpatrick is CEO and President of the polling company™.