Editor’s note: This op-ed appeared over the weekend in the Huffington Post.
At least three more red states — Texas, North Carolina and Tennessee — will push for school vouchers in the coming months. But the familiar showdown between Republican lawmakers and teachers’ unions masks a more intriguing political development on parental choice: Democrats are increasingly siding with parents.
Count me in the parent camp. I’m a lifelong progressive Democrat, former president of two local teacher unions, and current president of a Florida nonprofit that is the country’s largest provider of tax credit scholarships for low-income students to attend qualified private schools. This year the Florida scholarship will serve more than 50,000 economically disadvantaged students who are mostly of color, and it aligns directly with the core Democratic Party values of social justice and equal opportunity.
For a host of complicated reasons, low-income kids are not generally doing well in traditional public schools. In 2011, according to the National Assessment of Educational Progress, the reading gap nationally between low-income and higher-income fourth-graders was 22 percentage points. Florida has seen encouraging progress with its disadvantaged students, yet startling gaps persist. Last year, 45 percent of low-income third graders scored at grade level or above on the Florida reading test, compared to 77 percent of higher-income students.
One way to combat the challenges faced by students in poverty is to give their parents more options. Affluent parents can buy homes in neighborhoods with preferred school zones, navigate the other public school choices, home school or pay for a private school. But low-income parents don’t have these opportunities. Expanding choice is a way to help level the playing field.
This expansion is not either/or, and it’s not public versus private. Educators understand that different children learn in different ways, and to that end, education is increasingly becoming customized. In Florida, we now have 1.5 million students — about 43 percent of the total — enrolled in something other than traditional neighborhood schools. Last year, there were 341,000 who chose through “open enrollment,” 227,000 who picked choice and magnet programs, 180,000 in charter schools, 203,000 in career academies and 8,000 in full-time virtual instruction. Vouchers and tax-credit scholarships are not an invasive species on this fast-changing landscape, where lines between public and private are blurring. They’re simply two more peas in a public education pod.
That’s one reason the politics are changing.