The Bipartisan Rejection of 'School Choice': Even in Republican-led states, voucher programs are getting pushback.

AuthorBryant, Jeff

At the end of the 2020-21 school year, proponents of school voucher programs like the Cato Institute, an influential libertarian think tank, proclaimed having had their "best year" ever. Betsy DeVos, the Secretary of Education under former President Donald Trump, had mainstreamed the once-fringe idea of giving parents public money to pay for private school tuition. Since DeVos opened the floodgates, eighteen states have created voucher programs or expanded existing ones in order to privatize public education.

"School choice is on the march," declared an op-ed in Forbes by Mike McShane, director of national research at EdChoice, using the term branded by advocates for privatizing public schools.

School choice proponents believed their efforts would get a boost from the coronavirus pandemic, which kept many schools shuttered or turned them into battlegrounds over health precautions such as masks and vaccines. "As the highly contagious Omicron variant complicates the spring school semester and the 2022 midterms ramp up," Politico reported, "GOP strategists say it is an opportune time to also propel... school choice."

The hopes of voucher advocates have also been buoyed by the rightwing assault on schools for a grab bag of issues under the ubiquitous umbrella term "critical race theory." This label has come to describe nearly any curriculum about race and gender inequities in society, social and emotional learning, and the nation's shameful history regarding slavery and the extermination of Indigenous peoples.

In February, the Heritage Foundation, a prominent rightwing think tank, issued a report declaring that this so-called culture war was "extremely helpful" in promoting the various forms of new voucher programs being considered in state legislatures. The report urged advocates for school choice to "emphasiz[e] the fact that [critical race theory] is trying to divide parents and that school choice is a solution."

In 2021, twenty-two states launched or expanded voucher programs; seventy-four more measures to do so were introduced this year. An NBC News headline declared that DeVos "might finally get her wish" in expanding the reach of voucher programs.

But what voucher proponents had not counted on was the pushback--not just from the usual coalition of teachers' unions, progressives, and grassroots public school advocates, but from bipartisan lawmakers in politically "red" states.

In Oklahoma, a bill to create a voucher-like program that...

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