By James Oliphant
WASHINGTON (Reuters) – Beyond the tumult surrounding Donald Trump‘s presidential bid and his threats to seek revenge against his political enemies should he win, the Republican frontrunner has seized on an issue that even some Democrats say could attract new voters in 2024.
Trump is backing “school choice” programs that use taxpayer dollars to send students to private and religious schools. It is a stance with wide appeal as parents have become increasingly fed up with the state of U.S. public education.
Polls show that about 70% of parents favor greater education options. The issue resonates strongly enough with some voters that Trump’s support could make a difference in the presidential election as well as help Republicans in state and congressional races.
“It’s popular among the Republican base, it’s popular among independents and even popular among the Democratic base – in particular African-Americans and Hispanics,” said Jason Bedrick, a research fellow at the conservative Heritage Foundation.
In a banner year for the school-choice movement, 10 states, all governed by Republicans, enacted or expanded programs in 2023 that allow varying uses of public tax dollars for private education assistance, from tuition to tutoring and therapy.
For reform advocates, the momentum is a natural outgrowth of the conservative “parents’ rights” movement born of the COVID-19 pandemic, when concerns about safety mushroomed into screaming matches at school board meetings over curriculum, learning loss and diversity initiatives.
Many Democrats, backed by powerful teachers’ unions, continue to view such programs with suspicion, however, saying they are attempts by Republicans to weaken public education while further enriching wealthy families.
But some Democrats warn their candidates must embrace education options or risk ceding their historic edge over Republicans on the issue.
“If we don’t offer an alternative to private school choice, we are going to lose more voters on this issue,” said Jorge Elorza, CEO of Democrats for Education Reform, which favors school-choice options such as charter schools. “We’re going to lose close elections on this issue.”
Polling by Elorza’s group in four 2024 battleground states, Arizona, Georgia, Nevada and North Carolina, showed Republicans held a three-percentage point advantage on the question of which party people trust most on education.
Elorza said he was concerned particularly about Black voters in states like Georgia, where a slight shift in the 2020 elections would have tilted the state toward Trump.
After Republicans in Arizona enacted a sweeping state-funded voucher plan last year, enrollment in the program exceeded budget projections, causing Democratic Governor Katie Hobbs to argue that it clashes with other state priorities.
In Florida, some 123,000 students joined a similar program after it was expanded in March with the backing of Florida Governor Ron DeSantis, another presidential candidate who regularly touts it on the campaign trail and in debates.
The majority of those students were already attending private schools – a statistic jumped on by critics who argued the program mainly benefits wealthy parents.
According to Step Up For Students, the nonprofit that administers the Florida program, of the close to 227,000 total students who now receive assistance, about 108,000 are from families who qualify for free or reduced-price school lunches.
The make-up of the program reflects a broad cross-section of demographic groups; 36% of the students are Hispanic and 20% are Black.
Shemeika Williams, a Black mother of three who works in a South Florida hospital, said she wouldn’t be able to afford the private Christian academy her 17-year-old daughter attends if the state didn’t cover transportation and tuition costs.
Williams, 41, calls herself an independent and said the legislation will make it more likely she’ll back Republican candidates in the future.
“I will support anyone who will benefit me and my family,” she said. “They are helping people who don’t have the resources.”
School choice has long been championed by conservatives, including Betsy DeVos, who served as Trump’s education secretary.
Trump supports a bill pending in the U.S. House of Representatives that would provide tax relief to corporations and individuals who provide scholarships to allow students to attend private and religious schools.
He has also called for more federal support of homeschooling, the fastest growing form of K-12 education in the nation, by providing tax incentives.
Trump campaign spokesperson Steven Cheung said Trump seeks to “liberate students from failing schools and raise the quality of education across the board.”
School choice, Cheung said, “is an issue that should unify voters of all backgrounds.”
DEMOCRATIC PUSH BACK
Public policy think tanks such as the Brookings Institution have conducted studies that show vouchers and other choice programs don’t produce gains in academic performance and education attainment, largely because the quality of schools that receive private money vary wildly.
Conservative advocacy groups argue otherwise, saying there is a measurable improvement in student performance without a corresponding negative effect on public schools.
Some Democratic-leaning groups say recent elections showed voters were rejecting the Republican message on education.
In a memo last month, the National Education Association, a teachers’ union, noted that voters re-elected the Democratic governor in Kentucky in November in a race in which the Republican candidate’s support for a voucher plan became a top campaign issue.
Education was a central issue in races across the country this year. But frequently, Republican candidates who favored private school-choice programs were portrayed by Democrats as supporting efforts to ban controversial education materials and diversity efforts, making it difficult to measure the viability of the issue on its own.
For 2024 U.S. election stories, results and data: https://www.reuters.com/topic/event/us-elections/
(Reporting by James Oliphant; Editing by Colleen Jenkins and Cynthia Osterman)