Biden should back school choice. Democratic voters want it and his opponents reject it.

Core Democratic constituencies support the idea, and no Democrat can win without them. The candidate who embraces it will instantly stand out.
Students participate in a pre-kindergarten class at Alice M. Harte Charter School in New Orleans on Dec. 18, 2018.
Students participate in a pre-kindergarten class at Alice M. Harte Charter School in New Orleans on Dec. 18, 2018.Gerald Herbert / AP file
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By Andrew Cuff, researcher for the Commonwealth Foundation

Should lower-income parents be able to choose their kids’ education? Rich families already can: If the local public schools aren’t satisfactory, they move to different neighborhoods or send their kids to private school.

That’s why school choice programs exist — because high-quality schools shouldn’t just be for rich kids. Through school choice, parents can use some portion of the government funding allotted for their child’s education on alternatives to conventional district schools, such as charter schools, vouchers or tax credit scholarships to reduce the cost of private school tuition.

The irony is that while Democratic politicians slap down school choice proposals, Democratic voters are clamoring for them.

But most of the Democratic presidential candidates won’t support choices like these for lower-income parents. Nearly the entire primary field has opposed or refrained from backing any proposed model beside the standard public school system.

The irony is that while Democratic politicians slap down school choice proposals, Democratic voters are clamoring for them. A 2017 Gallup poll found that providing federal funding for programs that allow students to attend any private or public school was one of only a handful of issues with majority support from Democrats and Republicans. And a poll this year by Beck Research (a Democratic polling firm) found a majority of all Democrats (56 percent) support programs that put at least some education dollars in parents’ hands, with supermajorities of support among key segments of the party’s base: 67 percent of African Americans, 73 percent of Latinos and 75 percent of millennials.

No Democrat can survive without these core Democratic voters, and the Democrat who says yes to the demand for school choice will immediately stand out in a crowded field.

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Paging Joe Biden!

The former vice president has been largely silent on education during the campaign, but not on his identification with the “forgotten American.” Biden has embraced a working-class image — especially in recent comments calling Elizabeth Warren a snooty Harvard “elitist” — and is working hard to recapture the blue-collar Democratic voters who chose Trump in 2016.

What better way for Biden to contrast himself favorably with former Ivy League professor Warren than to offer low-income voters an opportunity to choose better schools for their kids? It’s a simple pivot that would immediately distinguish his campaign in the eyes of the working class and urban poor. And Biden’s strength in the polls among African Americans and Latinos — in deep contrast to Warren— provides him a solid foundation to win over an even bigger share of these constituencies as well.

I’ve seen how families in my home state of Pennsylvania become desperate for immediate options when their local public schools are academically deficient or violent. Trapping students in the infamous Philadelphia or Pittsburgh public schools is inhumane. One mom near Erie told me how there was only one public school option in her district, and her boys would tell her stories of brutal bullying every day after school — including with the occasional deadly weapon. For them, the tax credit scholarship program was literally a life-saver.

The program provides private school scholarships funded by private donors who receive a partial tax credit in return. Despite the fact that scholarships only cover a fraction of private school tuition, every year around 100,000 students apply for tax credit scholarships but only about half receive them due to budget limitations. Similarly, the demand for charter schools greatly outpaces Pennsylvania’s funding of them.

Indeed, Pennsylvania Democrats have declared war against charter schools and tax credit scholarships, just like governors and big-city mayors in California, New York and Michigan. Even choice programs with limited scope — education scholarship accounts for military families or emergency scholarship funding for kids to transfer out of dangerous, mismanaged school districts — face boycotts from a party that claims to value equality and the working class. And on the national level, almost the entire Democratic presidential field is united against helping these families in the way they want to be helped.

Bernie Sanders warns that “charter schools are led by unaccountable, private bodies, and their growth has drained funding from the public school system.” But that’s false — charter schools are public schools, for starters. And only a fraction of a percent in two states are for-profit; even the organizations that manage charters are twice as likely to be nonprofit than for-profit.

Charters can cause concern because they are managed by nongovernmental organizations, but this is also true for many hospitals and other public works. It’s not as if these schools are unaccountable: Local school boards must still approve a new charter school to open, and the institutions are then answerable to the parents who choose them.

Pete Buttigieg, to take another example, opposes vouchers on the grounds that private vs. public education is a zero-sum game. “These voucher programs tend to come at the expense of quality public education,” he asserts. But that’s wrong, with tax credit scholarship programs in my state, for instance, leading to public schools saving multiple billions of dollars that they can invest in improving the district.

Warren touts her fight against charter school growth in Massachusetts as a battle against “privatization and profiteering.” Perhaps she’s unaware that all Massachusetts charter schools are public and nonprofit.

And even Cory Booker, who recently supported the idea of charter schools in a New York Times op-ed, still uses the piece to bash “for-profit” charter schools and the “anti-public education agenda” of the current administration.

Democrats like Biden should trust their own voters to make educational choices for their own children, and then help them do so.

But it’s not the case that school choice programs are designed to defund public schools. Tax credit scholarships free up more funds to be used for public schools, and charter schools are themselves public schools that cost the public less money. And as numerous statistical studies have determined, school choice pushes local school districts to improve educational quality — so voters who care about a well-funded public school system should still be fans of choice.

While Democrats rattle off talking points in support of one-size-fits-all education that chiefly benefits the public school teachers unions who donate to their campaigns, their voters understand that the future, especially in the inner city where public schools are often horribly mismanaged, is the competitive choice model.

It’s straightforward from here. Democrats like Biden should trust their own voters to make educational choices for their own children, and then help them do so. This is the 21st century, and voters want options. Biden has an opportunity to step forward and offer some.