Many of the people pushing for more private school choice options around the country have two goals.
They want to make scholarships available to a broad range of students, including those in the middle class who don’t have access to the same choices as wealthy families. At the same time, they want to make sure school choice programs prioritize the needs of the most disadvantaged children.
In our latest podcast interview with Florida tax credit scholarship alumna Denisha Merriweather, John Schilling says that if the school choice movement does things right, it can achieve both at the same time.
“It’s definitely better to have broader eligibility because you want more kids to be able to participate in these programs,” he says. At the same time, “our primary focus is, we want to make sure that low-income families are always first in line.”
Both of those goals make sense in principle, and Schilling says they also make sense politically. The school choice movement needs a broad, politically potent base of support among scholarship parents. And since it wants to win allies from both major political parties, it needs to be able to make credible appeals to social justice.
“We want to make sure that these programs are going to survive the push and pull of election cycles,” he says. “So in order to do that, you really have to have bipartisan support.”
The organization is backing efforts to spread the word about Nevada’s new education savings account program to parents in low-income neighborhoods. The program is nearly universal, but Schilling said he hopes that, in concert with the Silver State’s new tax credit scholarships, it can unlock new options for low-income children. If the ESA program survives a lawsuit, it could soon help pave the way for similar programs in other states.
In Louisiana, AFC recently helped push to spare students from budget cuts to the statewide voucher program. In the nation’s capital, it’s pushing to increase funding for the D.C. Opportunity Scholarship Program and overcome the objections of President Barack Obama. In both cases, Schilling says, the studies showing the programs’ impact on student test scores, parental satisfaction or graduation rates aren’t driving politicians’ attitudes about the programs. Their most vocal opponents seem to have already made up their minds.
But others may be persuadable. The organization set up shop at both the Democratic and Republican National Conventions last month. There’s nothing about educational choice that’s intrinsically left or right. But Schilling says skeptical politicians need to hear the stories of parents and students. And they need to hear directly from low-income parents they represent.
“We want to share the message that this about kids. This is not about politics. This is not about political parties,” Schilling says, adding: “You can get conservative Republicans and liberal Democrats together on something that is truly going to benefit children and help improve educational outcomes.”