To win over Midwesterners, Democrats should rethink school choice stance

To win over Midwesterners, Democrats should rethink school choice stance
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At the recent National Education Association forum in Houston, 10 Democratic presidential hopefuls discussed their big-spending education plans and many assured the union of their single-minded devotion to traditional public schools. “I am sick and tired of efforts to privatize a special thing we need, public education,” said New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio. “I hate the privatizers and want to stop them.”

Former Texas congressman Beto O’Rourke, whose wife helped grow the charter school movement in El Paso, said, “There is a place for public, nonprofit charter schools. But private charter schools and voucher programs, not a single dime in my administration will go to them.”

Fast-forward to exactly one year from now, on July 13, 2020, when the Democratic National Convention will be held in Milwaukee. By hosting their convention in Wisconsin — after Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham ClintonTrump takes aim at media after 'hereby' ordering US businesses out of China Trump knocks news of CNN hiring ex-FBI official McCabe Taylor Swift says Trump is 'gaslighting the American public' MORE failed to visit the state in 2016 and Wisconsin turned red for Donald Trump — there is no doubt the Democrats are trying to make a play for the region. However, if they truly want to pick up votes in Midwestern cities, some research on the decades-long school choice movement could do them some good.

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Milwaukee is home to one of the nation’s most vibrant school choice programs. Founded in 1990 by a coalition featuring Democrats— state Rep. Polly Williams and civil rights activist Howard Fuller — and Republican Gov. Tommy Thompson, today the Milwaukee Parental Choice Program (MPCP) gives over 28,000 students, all at or below 300 percent of the federal poverty level, the ability to attend over 110 private schools on a state-funded voucher. Studies have shown that students on a voucher, relative to those at traditional Milwaukee Public Schools (MPS), score higher on state tests, are more likely to graduate from high school, and are less likely to commit a crime.

Separately, Milwaukee boasts a robust public charter school sector, which has more autonomy from the MPS School Board and public unions. Not surprisingly, the city’s 24 independent public charters outperform MPS by 8.2 percent in math and the 13 district public charters outperform traditional MPS schools by 13 percent in math.

All told, more than 40 percent of students in Milwaukee attend school outside traditional public schools. But the leading candidates for the 2020 Democratic nomination, by bowing to the teachers’ unions, would make it harder for these low-income, predominantly minority students to attend a high-quality school.  

Sen. Bernie SandersBernie SandersHickenlooper day-old Senate bid faces pushback from progressives Steyer calls on DNC to expand polling criteria for debates Andrew Yang: News coverage of Trump a 'microcosm' of issues facing country MORE (I-Vt.) recently declared that his administration “will ban for-profit charter schools” and has called for a moratorium on taxpayer funds for charter expansion. A Sanders administration would shut down high-performing public charter schools all over the country, forcibly sending minority children back into the struggling public schools. In Milwaukee, that would include Milwaukee Scholars, which educates 711 students in grades K4-8 and “exceeds expectations” on the state report card. 

Not to be outdone, Sen. Elizabeth WarrenElizabeth Ann WarrenSteyer calls on DNC to expand polling criteria for debates Gabbard hits DNC over poll criteria for debates The Hill's Campaign Report: Democratic field begins to shrink ahead of critical stretch MORE (D-Mass.), told a reporter in New Hampshire that “our public tax dollars should stay in our public schools.” Warren should visit one of the many standout private schools in the MPCP. HOPE Christian Schools, a network of nearly 3,000 students in eight schools, with 99 percent of students economically disadvantaged, boasts a graduation rate of 100 percent for the past seven consecutive years. The MPS graduation rate over the same period was roughly 60 percent.

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Even former Vice President Joe BidenJoe BidenBiden evokes 1968, asks voters to imagine if Obama had been assassinated Biden blasts Trump's 'embarrassing' actions heading into G-7 summit Steyer calls on DNC to expand polling criteria for debates MORE has joined the anti-charter rhetoric. When Biden presented his education plan to the American Federation for Teachers on May 28, he told an audience member: “I do not support any federal money for for-profit charter schools. Period.” But Biden’s plan would bankrupt those charter schools by requiring them to continue to meet federal obligations of educating disabled and economically disadvantaged students without funding to do so.

Biden justified his attacks on charters by claiming they “funnel money from public schools” and have “admissions tests.” He would be relieved to know that in Milwaukee, all charter schools are public by state law. Interestingly, some of the top schools at MPS have admissions policies, contributing to those schools educating fewer low-income students.  

Wisconsin is the ultimate battleground state where elections usually are decided on the thinnest margins. Our polling from the spring indicated strong African American and Hispanic support for charter schools of 62 percent and 68 percent, respectively. Registered Democrats, overall, support charters by more than 40 percent. This puts many presidential candidates at odds with influential constituents in their party.  

This could provide an opening for President TrumpDonald John TrumpDavid Axelrod after Ginsburg cancer treatment: Supreme Court vacancy could 'tear this country apart' EU says it will 'respond in kind' if US slaps tariffs on France Ginsburg again leaves Supreme Court with an uncertain future MORE, who touted school choice in his second State of the Union address, to attract some voters who are upset with the public school system. It would not be unprecedented. Last election cycle, by running hard on school choice in Florida’s cities, Republican Ron DeSantisRonald Dion DeSantisFlorida first lady to miss Women for Trump event due to planned execution Florida governor orders criminal investigation into handling of Jeffrey Epstein case Groups ask court to block ex-felon voting law in Florida MORE won the governorship in a race against African American Democrat Andrew Gillum by fewer than 40,000 votes. As noted in a Wall Street Journal article, 18 percent of African American women voted for DeSantis, which is 11 percent higher than the Republican national average. 

The Democratic presidential contenders are turning their backs on the more than 40,000 students in Milwaukee’s choice and charter schools — and many more throughout the country. If Democrats are trying to reach Midwesterners, they would be wise to pander less to the teachers’ unions and remember the poor students who are succeeding because of school choice.

CJ Szafir is executive vice president at Wisconsin Institute for Law & Liberty, a pro bono legal center that is involved in litigation in support of school choice. He is a member of the board of directors of HOPE Christian Schools. Follow him on Twitter @CJSzafir.

Cori Petersen is a writer and research associate at Wisconsin Institute for Law & Liberty. She previously was an op-ed editor at the Wall Street Journal.