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The lasting legacy of the education culture wars may be a familiar one: school choice

Students and parents rallied earlier this year at the Ohio Statehouse in Columbus in support of possible changes that would increase eligibility for taxpayer-funded school vouchers to K-12 students statewide.Samantha Hendrickson/Associated Press

Class War

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How culture war politics are changing the shape of education around the country.

WASHINGTON — For the past few years, images of angry parents at school board meetings and pitched protests over what curricula can say about LGTBQ+ individuals and African American history have dominated the conversation about public schooling in the United States.

Under the radar, though, a potentially more lasting policy shift has been underway, driven by some of the same forces: a rapid acceleration of “school choice” policies.

This year at least seven states created new programs to allow parents to spend state money on nonpublic schooling and at least 10 have expanded existing programs, according to a pro-school choice organization EdChoice. In its roundup, the group called the year a “watershed moment” in the movement and declared “2023 the Year of Universal Choice.”

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In Arkansas, Governor Sarah Huckabee Sanders signed her top priority, a sweeping education bill, weeks after taking office. It created a universal school voucher program in the state giving families state money to spend on private schooling, raised teacher pay but made them easier to fire, and banned the teaching of gender identity to young kids as well as “indoctrination” and “critical race theory” writ large. Three other states that restricted the teaching of gender identity and sexual orientation last year — Iowa, Indiana, and North Carolina — also created or expanded school choice programs.

The issues have also converged in the Republican presidential primary, where candidates’ education pitches often combine school choice and parents’ rights. In a speech at a major gathering of religious conservatives, the Family Research Council’s “Pray Vote Stand Summit,” former president Donald Trump, the front-runner for the Republican nomination, paired attacks on LGBTQ+ inclusiveness in schools with enacting universal school choice as key planks of his proposed plan, as did some of his rivals.

Though the “parents rights” movement that grew during the pandemic was originally distinct from school choice, and focused more on flipping school boards and working within public schools, the movements have increasingly merged.

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School choice has long been a complicated rallying cry that hasn’t always fit neatly into American ideological divides. It has significant support from the religious right, who have fought to allow public funds to support religious schools. Libertarians have argued that a market of choice in schools could improve education. Many on the left have also embraced school choice as a way to help ensure children in chronically underserved poor and minority communities receive an equitable education, usually as part of a bigger effort to improve public schools.

The pandemic provided an inflection point, however, as schools faced extended closures, parents got greater insight into their children’s classes, and academic performance overall suffered. Homeschooling, absenteeism, and private schooling increased post-pandemic, while public school enrollment dropped. It was the crucible from which the “parents’ rights” movement grew, but it also fueled interest in school choice.

“It’s more like a perfect storm that suddenly made school choice not just more popular, but a lot of this was awareness,” said Erika Sanzi, outreach director for the parental rights group Parents Defending Education and who also supports school choice.

In early 2022, the influential conservative think tank The Heritage Foundation put out a report on education titled, “Time for the School Choice Movement to Embrace the Culture War.” The paper made the case that pro-school choice groups in the political center and left should set aside their efforts to defend diversity programs or avoid hot-button debates and recognize that parental anger fueled by culture wars could significantly advance their cause.

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“Whether education reform organizations embrace cultural debates or not, the culture war is here to stay,” wrote authors Jay Greene and James Paul “School choice advocates are armed with an obvious solution. They should not squander the opportunity to use it.”

The argument may not have resonated with groups on the left, like the National Parents Union, that see their visions of social justice and equity in education as incompatible with a parents’ rights movement that views equity initiatives as discriminatory against white people. But whether intentionally or coincidentally, 2023 brought a significant increase in school choice efforts alongside the surge in interest in curriculum.

“I think the synergy between parental empowerment and school choice is a consequence of that [pandemic effect]. There’s much more distrust, there’s much more skepticism,” said Frederick M. Hess, a director of education policy at the right-leaning think tank American Enterprise Institute. “Once parents got distrustful, they started looking more closely and seeing other things they don’t like.”

Critics of school choice argue that it is a ploy to undermine public schools by taking tax dollars out of the system to fund private or religious schools. They see a similar effort underway in the parents’ rights movement — or perhaps even an ulterior motive of fueling school choice by sullying the reputation of public schools.

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“There’s an overstep of state lawmakers in some states,” Education Secretary Miguel Cardona told reporters at a September breakfast briefing hosted by the Christian Science Monitor. “Number one, to raise their national profile so we’re talking about them, and number two, because they want to see division in public schools, so they could sell the alternative, which is a private school with tuition paid for by taxpayers.”

Jack Schneider, a professor of education at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, fears that Democrats are playing into conservatives’ hands if they let Republicans frame them as pushing a leftist version of public schools. Alienating conservative parents is not helpful to Democrats’ cause, he said.

“The right wants the left to make education a partisan issue and to say, there should be schools for Republican kids and schools for Democratic kids,” Schneider said. “The project for the Republican Party right now is the dismantling of public education.”

He continued: “What we need to hear a lot more of is how the public schools actually need to be a place where all parents see themselves as belonging.”

Those on the left who support some version of school choice, however, say Democrats’ devotion to public education has created a blind spot causing the failure of some state-funded schools to be overlooked.

Keri Rodrigues, president and cofounder of the National Parents Union, a social justice group that pushes for overhauling schooling and a progressive version of school choice, said some of the programs pushed by Republicans that don’t measure improved outcomes for students or tailor vouchers to those with the greatest need are inadequate solutions.

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She faults school leaders who have reacted to the parents’ rights calls for greater transparency, as well as their intimidating tactics at school board meetings, by being even less forthcoming.

“If you act like you have something to hide, people are going to assume you’re hiding something, even if you’re not, and the only disinfectant for this crap is sunlight,” said Rodrigues, who also serves as a Massachusetts Democratic Committee member. “Stop whining about people wanting other options and make your option a choice worth choosing.”

She noted that parents of color and lower-income communities have for decades spoken up at meetings and organized for better schools only to feel ignored, while what she identified as a “political campaign” on the right has gotten the entire country’s attention.

“It’s almost offensive that generations of women who have done this work … are erased because a political campaign came through,” Rodrigues said. “We have reduced this down to these folks who have privilege and have been able to jack the mic.”

Long term, the culture war fights may fade or shapeshift. But changes to how schools are funded will prove hard to unwind, offering potentially the longest-lasting impact.

“Once you get a program going, and you have students and parents who will testify to a Legislature, or you have hundreds of students who are going to show up on the steps and have their picture taken and talk about how this choice program changed their lives, it becomes much more difficult to take it away,” Hess said. “A lot of the other ‘parental rights’ [agenda] doesn’t create that same kind of constituency — but choice does.”


Tal Kopan can be reached at tal.kopan@globe.com. Follow her @talkopan.