Originally published in Issues & Insights – February 3, 2020
You would think that nearly a decade since National School Choice Week started, there would not only be more presidential candidates in favor of school choice, but that the one Democratic candidate in favor of it – aside from new entrant Mike Bloomberg – would have had great success in the 2020 election.
Instead, Sen. Cory Booker announced less than two weeks before the annual awareness event that he would be removing himself from the 2020 race, bringing to a close an era where leading members of the Democratic party – Bill Clinton, Barack Obama – remained faithful in their commitment to a concept that, at its core, every American is actually in favor of: enabling students to attend whatever school can best serve their unique needs.
While this is a disappointing end, it’s also an opportunity to thoughtfully consider our next steps. And we must absolutely seize that opportunity; the harsh reality of students’ needing to escape school systems that are failing them won’t just disappear overnight.
We essentially have two options: One, shake our heads and continue preaching about school choice as we always have, waiting for the day when it will eventually click; or two, change our approach.
Unfortunately, in today’s heated political environment, the second someone uses a term with which, or references an individual with whom they disagree, it clicks the mental “off” button. Just about all of those associated with school choice or charter schools induce that very reaction.
So, let’s stop leading with that. Let’s drop those overused phrases and all the negative connotations they carry, and instead strip school choice down to its fundamental principles. Let’s focus on those, and find a way to discuss school choice by talking around it rather than about it, presenting a scenario in which it’s the obvious – if not only – choice for certain students.
I’ve already found success with this approach. In one conversation with an “on the record” opponent of school choice, he admitted that if his own child or grandchild were put in a particular situation, his response would be much the same as any school choice advocates. If his child or grandchild had to attend a different school either because their current one was failing them academically, physically, mentally or emotionally, he wouldn’t force them to stay. He would do everything in his power to protect their right to pursue a quality education.
I suspect more Americans would do the same. They know our schools could do more – just 13% of parents have said they strongly agree that “schools are teaching kids useful skills that will help them in the real world,” and 89% say it’s important to have “multiple school options.”
This slightly different phrasing is, indeed, what makes all the difference. When asked that question, approximately 50% of all Democrats, Republicans and independents said it was “very important,” and approximately 30% that it’s “somewhat important.”
The issue of school choice crosses political lines as well as racial lines. The American Federation for Children found that 73% of Latinos, 68% of Whites, and 67% of African American adults support school choice.
Clearly, a large part of the problem isn’t that Americans don’t want school choice, but that we’ve been going about the school choice conversation all wrong. Thankfully, it’s not too late to fix this error in messaging and start discussing school choice the way it should have been framed from day one – with student well-being at its center.
Now is the time to wipe the school choice slate clean and start again. And, with one year until National School Choice Week’s 10th anniversary, there’s still time for a come-from-behind win, for us to show significant progress on shifting mindsets simply by changing the narrative, opening minds and increasing individuals’ willingness to engage in this important conversation.
Chavous, a former District of Columbia City Council member, is an attorney, author, education reform activist, and president of academics, policy and schools at K12 Inc.