The first night of the Republican National Convention was extremely light on policy talk. The party put together no platform this year, opting instead to draft a simple resolution declaring its intent to support whatever Donald Trump decides he wants to do. So, instead of mounting an argument in favor of a sweeping policy agenda on Monday night, the convention’s cast members spent most of their time painting Trump as an empathetic leader who loves Black people—but will also keep Black people from moving to the suburbs where you, white voters, live.
One of the few exceptions was the topic of school choice, which was raised by almost every speaker on Monday’s docket. California public school teacher Rebecca Friedrichs, who has been fighting for years to prevent teachers unions from compelling members who oppose their union’s politics to pay union dues, appeared at the beginning of the evening. In her speech, Friedrichs accused teachers unions of “trapping so many precious, low-income children in dangerous, corrupt, and low-performing schools” by opposing policies that divert money from public schools to charter, private, and parochial schools. Friedrichs praised Trump for “empower[ing] kids to escape dangerous, low-performing schools” with a proposed tax credit program that would encourage funding for private and home-school education.
Trump himself showed up to promise he would “rescue kids from failing schools by helping their parents send them to a safe school of their choice.” Kim Klacik, a congressional candidate from Maryland, said Democrats have “neglected” Black voters, who “want school choice.” Two other Black Republicans, Georgia state Rep. Vernon Jones and South Carolina Sen. Tim Scott, suggested that their party’s school choice policies could provide a counterweight to the racism and poverty that close off opportunities for children of color. Donald Trump Jr. agreed. “It is unacceptable that too many African American and Hispanic American children are stuck in bad schools, just because of their ZIP code,” he said in his Monday night speech. “Donald Trump will not stand for it. If Democrats really wanted to help minorities in underserved communities, instead of bowing to big money union bosses, they’d let parents choose what school is best for their kids.” On Tuesday morning, Trump Jr. followed up his speech with an op-ed on Fox News’ website, titled “President Trump defends school choice from attacks by Democrats and teachers’ unions.”
School choice wasn’t a major winning issue for Trump during his last campaign, and it hasn’t been a significant focus of his first term. Education isn’t a determinative issue for the vast majority of presidential voters. So what’s with this sudden emphasis on school choice?
The first reason is that party conventions—and, sometimes, entire campaigns—are designed to energize a candidate’s base. School choice is the top issue for a relatively small population of voters, but that population is a passionate one, and one that has found a stalwart ally in Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos. At the same time, Democrats are far from united on the issue. It might be one of the few places where Trump stands to soften some swing voters’ perceptions of him.
School choice has also become a resonant topic in the culture wars Trump relies on to animate his base. The second pillar of Trump’s two-prong education plan, in addition to the tax credit proposal, is “teach American exceptionalism.” Conservative parents fret about the secular indoctrination of public schools; liberals are incensed by voucher programs that enrich parochial schools where LGBTQ students are mistreated or banned. The GOP loves to promote the myth of anti-Christian bias in the U.S., couching a variety of anti-choice and anti-LGBTQ bills in the language of “religious freedom.” The party promotes its efforts to send taxpayer money to religious schools the same way. School choice sits at the nexus of many of the topics—Christian persecution, transgender kids in sports—Trump and his allies like to talk about most.
In some places, there are also visible racial divides on the issue of school choice. In Florida, the biggest swing state in the country, where several Black Democratic legislators support tax credit scholarship programs like Trump’s, some analysts have credited Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis’ position on the issue with his ability to win 18 percent of Black women’s votes in 2018. (Just 8 percent of Black men voted for DeSantis.) Along with the criminal justice reform bill he trumpeted in his Super Bowl commercial, Trump has made school choice part of his attempt to convince Black voters that he has their best interests at heart: During his State of the Union address in February, he used the story of Black middle schooler Janiyah Davis, the recipient of a school voucher funded by DeVos, to sell his tax credit proposal. Never mind that Trump’s proposed federal policy and the tax credit and voucher programs he supports are decimating funding for public schools around the country, which plenty of kids still attend.
One interesting factor is that they’re talking about all of this right now, in the middle of the coronavirus pandemic. Parents around the country are struggling with the competing demands of work, child care, their children’s education, and ensuring their family’s safety during a public health crisis. Some families who would have never dreamed of home-schooling their children are now considering that doing so may be the least bad of several bad options in this previously unimaginable bind. Without any solid federal guidance or relief plan for school reopenings, virtual learning, or any other aspect of pandemic survival and recovery, parents have been set adrift, forced to cobble together an education plan on their own. The concept of school choice, so frequently framed as a path toward a better school, might sound pretty good right now. That assumes frazzled parents might not think too hard about what it really means—leaving public schools, and everyone who relies on them, behind.