Trump Should Capitalize on Vouchers’ Newfound Popularity

By Paul  Peterson

President Donald Trump’s poll numbers have slipped well below levels enjoyed by prior presidents during their first one hundred days. But on one issue—school choice—the president is pushing the numbers in the direction he desires. It’s time for him to push his school choice agenda.

When Trump chose Betsy DeVos, a fervent school choice advocate, to serve as education secretary, teachers unions pulled out all the stops. Senate Democrats relentlessly attacked DeVos’s credentials, demonstrators stormed the Capitol and two Republican senators broke party ranks to vote against the nominee on the grounds they could not support vouchers. To get the nomination through the Senate, Vice-President Mike Pence had to cast the deciding vote. But all the hullabaloo about DeVos’s voucher advocacy has backfired. The more the public have heard about vouchers, the more they like the idea.

A year ago, the 2016 Education Next poll of a representative sample of adult Americans (which I oversee) found only 31% of the public support the use of “government funds to pay the tuition of low-income students” while 55% opposed, with the remainder taking a neutral position. Now, according to a poll just released by Associated Press and the National Opinion Research Center, vouchers that use taxpayer funds for low-income students to attend private schools gathered support from 43% of the public, with only 31% opposed. The shift in opinion is no less than 12 percentage points

Vouchers for all families are more popular. When Education Next asked a year ago about a “proposal has been made that would give all families with children in public schools a wider choice, by allowing them to enroll their children in private schools instead, with government helping to pay the tuition,” 45% favored the idea, 44% opposed it and 12% took a neutral position.

Earlier this month, the Harvard School of Public Health asked a similar question. It found that 54% of the public support vouchers, with only 41% opposed. That’s a jump upward of 9 percentage points. No wonder the Associated Press is reporting that in many state houses “expectations among conservatives are soaring that the time for a ‘school choice’ revolution has finally arrived.”

As one might expect, Trump has made the most headway in polls among Republicans, who shifted from 41% to 62% favorable, while Democratic support slid southward by 9 percentage points. In 2016, nearly half of all those saying they were “independents” took a neutral position, but in the latest poll independents are nearly as favorable as Republicans.

The school choice tax credit proposal Trump promised has yet to be included in the administration’s tax-reform bill, but the idea is already more popular than school vouchers. Even in 2016, only 29 percent of the public were opposed to a “tax credit for individual and corporate donations that pay for scholarships to help low-income parents send their children to private schools.” Support was as great among Democrats as Republicans.

Inside the Beltway, the tax credit idea will necessarily generate partisan conflict. But around the country, the idea is gaining steam. Seventeen states have adopted some form of tax credit that gives parents greater school choice, according to EdChoice, the group that tracks these numbers. Furthermore, tax credits have survived legal challenges even in states such as Florida where courts have been hostile to vouchers. Studies show that tax credits help the students who use them and improve the public schools in neighborhoods where they allow private schools to offer stiff competition. As the Trump Administration sorts through its complex—and not always popular—agenda, it could score some valuable political points by rallying the public behind school choice.

Paul E. Peterson, a professor at Harvard, directs its Program on Education Policy and Governance in the Harvard Kennedy School and the annual Education Next poll.

NOTE: 

The change in public thinking about vouchers cannot be attributed to the wording of the question, as the Education Next questions seem friendlier to vouchers than the questions posed by the other polling firms:

The low-income voucher question posed by Education Next is as follows:

”A proposal has been made that would use government funds to pay the tuition of low-income students who choose to attend private schools. Would you favor or oppose this proposal?”

The Associated Press-NORC question is phrased this way:

“Would you favor, opposed, or neither favor nor oppose giving low-income parents tax funded vouchers to help pay for tuition for their children to attend private or religious schools of their choice instead of public schools?”

The recent question posed by the Harvard’s School of public Health goes as follows:

“Some school districts have programs that allow parents to send their children to approved private schools using taxpayer money to help pay the tuition. This is sometimes called a voucher. Do you favor or oppose the idea of allowing this in your community?”

References to “using taxpayer money” generally shifts public opinion against an idea. Yet the public responded more favorably to this question than it did to the Education Next one, which made no mention of the taxpayer but asked whether the person favored or opposed:

“A proposal …that would give all families with children in public schools a wider choice, by allowing them to enroll their children in private schools instead, with government helping to pay the tuition.”

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