They say politics makes strange bedfellows, but few would be considered stranger than Tea party firebrand Sen. Ted Cruz and Democratic stalwart Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee. On Monday the unlikely duo were brought together by school choice. This week marks the fourth annual National School Choice Week, and Monday’s event was one of thousands taking place around the country this week attended by parents, educators, and of course, politicians.
During his speech, Cruz, not exactly known as a civil rights activist said, "School choice is the civil rights issue of the 21st century.” Bombastic rhetoric is one of Cruz’s hallmarks, but his statement and the presence of a prominent black liberal congresswoman joining him and other conservatives in supporting school choice does merit asking the question: Is Cruz right? Is school choice a modern-day civil rights issue? And if so could it end up wooing minority voters to the Republican Party, which has struggled to improve its brand and its voter tallies with voters of color?
Asked if he considers school choice a civil rights issue, Andrew Campanella, President of National School Choice Week replied, “The civil rights movement is something that’s pretty sacred.” For that reason he said he’d rather leave it to those who were actively involved in that movement to weigh in on whether school choice qualifies as a worthy successor of that label. (Interestingly, the last day of this year’s National School Choice Week is the first day of Black History Month.) But he did call school choice “the single most important issue of our time.”
Though it has become largely synonymous with school vouchers and other words that tend to put teacher’s unions and their supporters on high alert, school choice is an umbrella term for a variety of different educational options, including traditional public schools. According to supporters of school choice, many parents never consider the decision regarding where and how to educate their child as something that’s optional. Instead, they simply send them to the public school their children are zoned to without exploring other options. National School Choice Week seeks to change that.
That option may end up being to keep a child at the public school in his community, but that option may end up being homeschooling, attending a private school, online academies, attending a magnet school, or a charter school. Then of course there are vouchers, which have become the political bogeyman of the school choice debate, to the chagrin of Campanella and other school choice supporters.
“There are folks out there who don’t support school choice and they like to hide behind the voucher argument but they don’t even support open enrollment in public schools. I find that incredibly disturbing that these folks don’t support magnate schools or charter schools but they hide behind the voucher argument because they think that’s what will get the most traction when they oppose school choice week or school choice.”
Congresswoman Frederica Wilson spent much of her life working in the field of education before turning to politics. The ranking member of the Congressional Black Caucus’ Education Committee, said in a statement to The Daily Beast that, “There’s no better choice for children and families than a welcoming, safe, high performing, public school.” She also expressed concerns that, “Too often, voucher schools and charter schools cherry-pick students. They serve too few children with special needs, they too often discriminate, and they too often promote radical conservative political agendas.”
But Republicans are banking on the fact that school choice is increasingly viewed as an issue that cuts across racial, ideological and party lines. Polls have found that minority voters are more open to educational models that fall outside of the parameters of traditional public school education. One recent survey found black voters in New Jersey were 10 points more likely to support charter schools than the general population. With the wealth gap between black families and white families at a record high, black parents with limited resources in communities with limited options are understandably looking for as many alternatives as possible to simply allowing their children to end up with a substandard education.
Tim Scott, one of two African-Americans currently serving in the Senate noted that his impoverished background is one of the primary reasons he is a vocal proponent of the school choice movement. “As someone who grew up in poverty, attended four elementary schools in five years, and almost flunked out of high school I truly understand the power and importance of education,” he wrote in an email to The Daily Beast. “School choice is a path that will allow us to help not only those kids who grow up in low-income areas like I did, but also those with special needs and those living on military bases.” He has introduced legislation, the CHOICE Act, aimed specifically at helping the parents of special needs students find an adequate alternative to serve the needs of their children if their current school is not sufficient.
Scott is not the only African-American senator who supports school choice. His colleague across the aisle, Cory Booker of New Jersey also does. His support for vouchers made him a target of his Democratic rivals during his Senate primary. But the emergence of Rep. Jackson Lee as a voice for school choice indicates that supporting the school choice movement is increasingly a less fraught move for Democrats. At the Texas rally Lee explained her support for the school choice movement as part of her record of standing against injustice. "And I'm going to fight that injustice” she said describing limited education opportunities, according to The Houston Chronicle. Though her office did not respond to requests for comment by deadline, her remarks at the National School Choice Event certainly employ the language that many of the civil rights movement employed, namely that the fight over educational inequality is ultimately a social justice fight.
There are plenty who believe that the injustice of being forced to attend a school segregated by race is not all that different from being forced to attend a school segregated along class lines. In previous remarks House Majority Leader Eric Cantor has called educational inequality “the greatest civil rights challenge of our time.” He even name-checked the most revered civil rights activist of all time, Dr. Martin Luther King, saying, “Fifty years ago, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. stood on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial and dreamed of an end to segregation. He knew this dream would be a reality because, as he often said, ‘the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice.’ Education opportunity is justice for those children trapped in failing schools. And the arc is bending.”
At a National School Choice Week event on Wednesday, Cantor was joined by WNBA superstar Lisa Leslie, who is African-American, in preaching the gospel of school choice. It is still up in the air how many other African-Americans will follow Leslie’s lead. Asked whether the Democratic National Committee is worried that school choice, and its framing as a civil rights issue, and increasingly an issue to combat poverty could erode the party’s support among minority voters, spokeswoman Kiara Pesante gave a resounding no. Highlighting some of the party’s pre-existing image issues she said, “It will be hard for any Republican who wants to get rid of the Department of Education to make the case that they support expanded access to education. Until they change their policy provisions, Americans who support education will continue to support Democrats.” She added that, the Cruz-led GOP is wrong on a host of issues, education being one of them and “African-American voters won’t soon forget it.”
Of course her Republican counterpart sees things differently. Orlando Watson who oversees African-American media for the Republican National Committee replied, ”Congressional Democrats don’t get to claim they are on the side of students, parents, and communities when the truth is many of them are beholden to teachers unions and special interests. It’s Republicans who support an all-of-the-above agenda that empowers people and it’s Republicans who stand with the majority of Americans in favor of school choice. ”
There is no question that educational inequality is a civil rights issue because it is so fundamentally at the core of income inequality, which is the defining equal rights issue of America today. But whether school choice can solve it the way the Voting Rights Act and other legislative measures addressed many of the primary problems the civil rights movement of the 1960s sought to remedy, is unclear. Because what no one on either side of the school choice debate is willing to admit—publicly at least—is that fundamentally the children who have the more engaged parents will always fare better than the children who do not, regardless of race or class. While engaged parents of the upper class may enroll a child in all of the SAT prep courses and arts classes their budgets will permit, an engaged middle-class or low-income parent will research charter schools and vouchers. The kids who do not have parents willing to advocate for them will likely be left behind regardless. But at least school choice will give those low-income students with engaged parents more of a chance to compete with their upper class peers than the alternative: nothing at all.