Rees: Elections Come and Go, but Movements — Like School Choice — Endure

My first experience in school choice politics came in 1993. That year, Prop 174 asked California voters to decide whether parents should be given vouchers that they could redeem for their children’s education at the school of their choice. The proposition failed badly. Looking back, it probably should have. It was too expansive and not well structured. Most state leaders opposed it. But its defeat didn’t mean the end of school choice.

At around the same time, charter public schools were being introduced onto the education landscape. California had passed its charter school law the year before. Nearly a quarter-century later, charter schools and school choice have taken hold in California. According to the latest report on charter school enrollment from the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools, Los Angeles has 156,000 students in charter schools — more than any other school district in the nation. Two other California districts have more than 30 percent of their students in charter schools.

The lesson here is simple: Elections offer temporary victories or defeats, but movements endure. School choice is right for students and parents. It’s a movement that won’t be stopped, even amid occasional setbacks.

One of those setbacks occurred yesterday in Massachusetts, where voters rejected Question 2, the measure to allow 12 additional charter schools in the Bay State. The campaign for Question 2 had a much different dynamic than the campaign for Prop 174 back in the day. Major players on both the Republican and Democratic sides supported Question 2, including Gov. Charlie Baker, a Republican, and state House speaker Robert DeLeo, a Democrat.

The measure was limited — it would have allowed just 12 additional charter schools in a state where charter school waiting lists exceed 30,000 students. And today, of course, charter schools are a proven high-quality option. As The New York Times’s David Leonhardt noted over the weekend, the evidence of charter school success in Massachusetts is so overwhelming as to be hardly even debatable.

Yet the union-led opposition to charter schools continues to try to convince voters that charter schools make other public schools poorer. The reality is that charter schools make other public schools better. But reality doesn’t always prevail in elections. Facts are important. So are a strong ground game, persuasive advertising, voter enthusiasm and even the presence of other races on the ballot. School choice supporters need to keep improving on tactics and strategy to raise our chances of success in the future.

Persuasion will be especially important at the federal level, as we work to build the same kind of rapport and trust with Donald Trump as we’ve had with Presidents Obama, Bush and Clinton and their secretaries of education. President-elect Trump has voiced support for charter schools, though he hasn’t fully fleshed out the details of his education policy. To convince him of the merits, it will be important for all choice supporters to reinforce how vital school choice and charter schools are to ensuring better opportunities for all students.

Choice advocates will also be working with a Republican Congress that has, to date, shown strong support for charter schools and the Charter Schools Program — the main federal funding vehicle behind charter school expansion and replication. To maintain this support, choice advocates must show Congress’s new and returning leaders and key committee members how charter schools are making a difference for students in their districts and around the nation.

Several state results beyond Massachusetts will also have an impact on students, for better or worse. In Kentucky, voters elected a Republican majority to the state House of Representatives. The previous Democratic majority had been a sticking point in Gov. Matt Bevin’s efforts to bring charter schools to Kentucky. Given this new opportunity, the National Alliance will be working with state and national allies to make Kentucky the 44th state to allow charter schools. (Any Kentucky legislators reading this can take a look at the National Alliance’s model state law for suggestions about how to move forward.)

In Georgia, voters rejected a new opportunity school district that would have allowed state leaders to employ innovative and intensive efforts to improve the state’s worst-performing schools. A similar district has had early successes in Tennessee, and it’s a shame that Georgia students won’t see the same benefits. Yet the struggle isn’t over. Gov. Nathan Deal has already signaled that he’ll look for other ways to turn around underperforming schools.

In Denver, voters approved two measures to increase funding for public schools. Students with special needs and from low-income families will see the biggest benefit, and many schools will have their facilities and technology improved. Charter schools as well as traditional schools will have access to these funds, so the measures will help to ensure that all families benefit from robust school options in Denver.

California made news by rolling back its 20-year-old prohibition on bilingual education. Now, local communities and school districts will be able to decide what’s best for their students and try a variety of approaches to helping all students become proficient in English. The school choice movement has been an important factor here, busting the myth that every student should be taught the same way.

What we saw this week was democracy at work. Voters don’t always decide the way either side wants them to, but hearts and minds change over time, and no decision is ever set in stone. In between elections, school choice best reflects this democratic ethos. When parents choose their child’s school, they’re voting — voting for a school, a way of learning, an approach to teaching, a set of values. It just makes sense that in a democracy as vibrant as ours, parents should have a variety of choices about who will help them educate their children.

The best way for school choice advocates to convince parents and voters that we’re right is to keep getting results. Quality matters. Parents want options that work for the children. We need to continue providing these good options, building the evidence and amplifying the voices of parents and students who have benefited from school choice. With these elements in place, we’ll see even more election victories in the future.

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