Educational choice can no longer remain a side issue if America is to remain a constitutional republic, recognizable to those who founded it. At stake in the effort to reform the United States education system are not just test scores or academic achievement, but grounding citizens and future voters in what has made America great—and exceptional—in the first place.
New Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos’ support for parent choice programs like tax-credit scholarships, vouchers, and education savings accounts took center stage during her contentious confirmation battle, with even moderate Republicans speaking out against her nomination and American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten trying to paint her support for parent-empowering choice as “anti-public education.” The ferocity of the opposition to DeVos, a mainstream, even moderate, education reformer, highlights the importance of maintaining control over a monopolistic system is for the education establishment.
Much of the debate (and outright misinformation) has centered on the efficacy of school choice programs, which have a great record of not only improving test scores, but improving important non-academic outcomes, such as startlingly lower crime conviction rates for the few students lucky enough to have the chance to enroll in them.
There is also no evidence that these gains come at the expense of those “left behind” in traditional public schools. Of the 23 studies that have examined academic performance in public districts after a choice program has been enacted, 22 found that performance actually improved as the result of competition (the 23rd found no impact).
For these reasons and more, parent choice will always be worth supporting, as it empowers parents, tailors learning to the individual needs of every student, and improves overall education quality through competition. However, equally important to how well American students learn is what they learn, and the window of opportunity to save American civic principles through education reform is closing fast.
Civics Gap Between Generation X and Millennial Parents
Forty percent of millennials believe that government should regulate speech that offends minorities, compared to 27 percent of Gen Xers who say the same. Almost half of millennials do not believe that communism is a problem in today’s world. The same number said they would vote for a socialist, and a full fifth even for a communist candidate. A full third of millennials believe that former President George W. Bush killed more people than notorious Communist mass murder Joseph Stalin.
None of this is surprising, considering that communist Howard Zinn’s “A People’s History of the United States” remains among the most popular high school textbooks in America. Millennials were the first generation to learn American history almost entirely from 1968’s New Left teachers and professors, while Generation X narrowly escaped that fate, and was taught largely by pre-1960s educators.
The reforms championed by activists like DeVos empower parents to choose, not only the highest-quality education opportunities for their children, but an education that aligns with their values. Indeed, there is evidence that value alignment plays a larger role in parents’ school decision than academic record as measured by standardized tests, which many parents disregard.
The possibility that non-wealthy right-of-center—or even “deplorable”—parents might be able to opt out from the traditional public school system, where the dominant ideological perspective is progressive, terrifies the education establishment, as is evident from their shock and anger that DeVos, a Christian, advocates for the value of Christian education.
The challenge for education reformers who want to reinvigorate the principles of the Founding among American citizens is to implement broad choice while Generation X, not civics-ignorant millennial parents, are still making the majority of decisions about what American children should be learning about their country, its history, and its institutions.
If reformers wait too long, millennial parents will make up the majority of those with school-age children, and choice will improve quality but fail to make a dent in our citizens’ damaging ignorance of American principles. And that window is closing fast. According to Pew, the youngest millennials are now 18, while the oldest are 34.
Because millennials are marrying and having children later in life than past generations, most of the country’s school-age children still have parents in the Generation X cohort. That will change, of course, and because millennials are the largest generation in history, change rapidly over the next five years. Even once passed, education choice programs typically take a few years for participation to grow to any appreciable size. In other words, crunch time is now.
States Aren’t Moving Fast Enough
While the national election results have garnered the vast majority of media attention, Democrats have become almost an endangered species at the state level. Republicans now hold both legislative houses in 32 states and the unicameral legislature in Nebraska, compared to 13 states controlled by Democrats. Among those 32 states with two Republican houses, a full three-quarters—24 states—have Republican governors as well, meaning that in almost half the country, Republicans can pass whatever legislation they choose.
This seems like a rosy picture for an issue like educational choice, which, while still mostly championed by Republicans, has typically enjoyed a certain amount of crossover Democratic support.
However, for the last two years, the map has looked similarly rosy, with Republicans holding 69 out of 99 state houses and 31 governorships. While 19 education savings account bills were introduced last year in a variety of states, not a single one passed and was signed into law, despite consistent surveys showing that school choice programs remain popular with voters across the ideological spectrum. The failure to pass universal education reform has been a spectacular failure of political will and priorities.
Ronald Reagan famously said, “Freedom is never more than one generation away from extinction.” If education reform is going to be about more than ticking up the United States’ score on international exams, and if school choice is also our only opportunity to break a left-wing ideological monopoly on public education, we must deliver meaningful, universal education choice to parents now, while Generation X parents are still the majority of those with school-age children.
We must give all parents the opportunity now to choose education options that align with their values, or the values we cherish will continue their slide into extinction.