Education reform advocates love to talk about a “big tent.” To pass any meaningful legislation requires bipartisan support; we’ll only reform our schools when we all band together and focus on what unites us—or so runs the argument. Well, a new report at the American Enterprise Institute from Jay P. Greene and James D. Paul may collapse that big tent narrative.
They scoured recent school choice legislation and crunched the numbers to see whose votes the bills actually needed to pass. In only 3 out of 70 cases did Republicans need any Democratic votes to reach a 50% threshold and pass the legislation. Democrats provided 381 compared to 2,844 individual “yes” votes from Republicans. The authors found “the magnitude of the partisan differences” striking and concluded that “in the vast majority of final passage votes, Republicans alone could have carried the day.”
In short, maybe we don’t need a big tent after all.
Now, that conclusion could justify no alteration of behavior and rhetoric. If there are no consequences to the ‘big-tent’ approach, why not still seek bipartisan support? Extra votes to ensure passage of school choice bills don’t do any harm and it certainly feels more ethical to seek broad consensus. Not so, the authors argue. They write:
Some school choice advocacy organizations have made a strategic choice to staff their communications and public affairs relations branches with former Democratic operatives and individuals who cut a clear far-left profile on social media. Other organizations have thrown substantial money into Democratic primaries. Given that Democratic support has almost never been necessary for passage, these tactics are at best a waste of resources. But beyond the opportunity cost, these efforts risk alienating the Republican legislators whose support is essential to passing choice programs.
There are consequences to this approach. The efforts to appeal to Democratic constituencies may be a waste of resources and effort. Most striking to me, the authors draw attention to how all of these efforts often result in school choice bills that “are often watered down through the legislative process.”
At the risk of mixing metaphors, this big-tent approach is akin to spreading butter too thin. When we try to stretch the appeal of choice legislation to everyone, we end up with bills spread so thin that they functionally benefit no one. “This approach has come at the profound cost of limiting the number of students who may benefit from school choice,” the authors continue and assert that “a strategy more aligned with Republican values and constituents could produce more robust and successful programs.”
Recent elections seem to confirm this tactical approach. Many credit DeSantis’ win in Florida to his support of school choice. Few would consider DeSantis much of a “both sides” type of politician rhetorically and yet school choice is such a wildly popular initiative—67% of voters, 73% of Latinos, 68% of whites, 67% of African Americans—that he pulled people into the conservative coalition with school choice messaging without any pandering to centrist sentimentalities.
I struggle with this admittedly. I’m an outspoken conservative and active on social media. At times, I’m worried that my unabashed conservatism might alienate certain readers or potential choice allies. But when I consider it, school choice is the very issue that pulled me into the conservative movement. It’s an effective policy based upon sound small government, market-friendly theories of society. Perhaps there is something to this suggestion—that we ought to use school choice to pull more people into the tent instead of trying to extend the tent to cover more and more.
The authors end with a compelling question: “Will advocates double down on the bipartisan approach—which generally yields small, heavily regulated programs—or will they chart a new course?” It’s in the best interests of both school choice legislation and the students who would function within these regulatory programs for advocates to chart this second course, a thoroughly conservative message with robust choice bills.