School Choice on Behalf of Pa.’s Poorest Should Be a Bipartisan Issue
In Pennsylvania, Washington, D.C., and throughout the country, Republicans and Democrats have come together to pass smart criminal justice reforms that help people achieve independence and prosperity while promoting efficient use of taxpayer resources.
You wouldn’t know it by listening to Governor Wolf or the Democrat presidential candidates, but school choice also enjoys strong bipartisan support—at least among voters. Polls in Pennsylvania and beyond consistently show robust support for school choice in all demographics—including Democrats.
Graphic: Results from School Choice Polling
Despite this public support, most Democrats in Harrisburg consistently oppose efforts to make educational opportunities accessible to more students. For example, every Democrat in the Senate and all but four in the House voted against legislation to grow tax credit scholarships to meet demand. In contrast, every Republican supported this improvement. Similarly, all but three House Democrats voted against legislation allowing charter schools the right of first refusal to purchase or lease unused school district buildings. All but four House Republicans supported the measure.
The current divide on school choice is all the more disappointing when you consider the strong bipartisan support for creating the Educational Improvement Tax Credit (EITC) in 2001. A decade later, it was a Democrat—Sen. Anthony Williams (Philadelphia)—who first sponsored an Opportunity Scholarship program. Prominent Democrats and Republicans united to advocate for more choice throughout Pennsylvania.
Why are Democrats in the General Assembly so out of touch with their voters on this issue? According to education activist Howard Fuller, opposition to parental choice by teachers’ unions, which give heavily to Democratic candidates, makes it politically difficult for Democrats to support choice. In 2012, the Pennsylvania State Education Association (PSEA), the largest teachers’ union in the state, neither supported nor opposed the EITC. Now PSEA actively campaigns against EITC increases—despite 50,000 scholarship applications being rejected each year due to current caps.
This isn’t just a number. These are kids—our neighbors—who need help.
School choice should be bipartisan for the same reason as criminal justice reform: it restores fairness and opportunity to Pennsylvania families. Both these policies make an outsize impact among the poor, minorities, and those living in the inner city. Democrats in the General Assembly have been campaigning as their champions—so why do they let special interests get in the way?
The benefits of school choice are wide-ranging:
- Choice improves public schools through competition and gives underprivileged students the opportunity to thrive.
- Numerous studies have shown that school choice options improve academic outcomes, decrease racial segregation, promote respect for others’ rights, and reduce crime.
- Pennsylvania’s tax credit scholarships have saved taxpayers $4 to $6 billion since 2002. This frees up money for public schools and other government functions.
The empirical evidence shows that choice improves academic outcomes for participants and public schools, saves taxpayer money, moves students into more integrated classrooms, and strengthens the shared civic values and practices essential to American democracy.
By coming together on criminal justice reform, Republicans and Democrats have improved lives while saving taxpayers money. Similar opportunities are available with school choice. Republicans—whose supporters tend to want a “tough on crime” approach—took political risks to pass criminal justice reforms. Some Democrats have already taken this risk on school choice; it’s time for more colleagues to join them.
Given all the benefits that accompany school choice—and the strong support among Democrat voters—the risks are worth it.