- Minority support for school choice exceeds white support for many programs
- High levels of support create opportunities for many Republicans and problems for many Democrats
- Expanded school choice should be included as an option to remote learning to ensure students don’t fall further behind and to help narrow the achievement gap
School choice is a topic that evokes different responses, depending upon whom you ask. Conservatives see choice as a means of empowering parents to decide how and where a child is educated. It’s a lifeline to a better education for children relegated to failing schools or another option if – for whatever reason – a school is not working for the student.
On the other hand, progressives and others on the Left see choice as a tool that allows whites to vacate troubled public-school systems and leave behind a poorer and even more segregated system.
But what about those most impacted by school choice? How do low income and minorities – most notably blacks and Hispanics – feel about school choice? Perhaps not as you would expect.
To answer the question posed above, we’ll review results from the January 2020 statewide school choice poll. Poll crosstabs provide results by specific categories including race. Results from several questions help to illustrate the views of minorities and school choice.
Do you agree or disagree with the following statement: Parents should have the ability to choose where their child attends school?
While support for overall school choice is slightly lower among Hispanics than whites, overall support levels for Total Non-whites are higher than whites (84% to 80%). Still we are talking about relative differences. It shouldn’t be lost that overall support levels for the statement: parents should have the ability to choose where their child attends school – the essence of school choice – is very high among all races.
The Civitas Poll also asked questions about two of North Carolina’s most prominent school choice programs; public charter schools and the Opportunity Scholarship Program.
Charter schools are public schools which are not governed by a local school board but by an independent board. While they are subject to the same administrative requirements as traditional public schools, charter schools are exempt from certain administrative regulations. , Do you favor or oppose charter schools?
With regard to charters, minority support (58%) is still slightly higher than white (57%) support levels. The lower levels of support for charter schools by Hispanics and Latinos (41%) is clearly visible. Is the lower figure an aberration? We don’t know. These trends are slightly different than national polling and it is certainly worth watching going forward.
Opportunity Scholarship Program
The Civitas Poll asked:
The North Carolina Opportunity Scholarship Program provides government–funded vouchers of up to $4,200 to low-and moderate-income students that can be applied to tuition at a private school of their parents’ choice. In 2019, over 9,000 students participated in this program. Do you favor or oppose the Opportunity Scholarship Program?
All respondents supported the Opportunity Scholarship Program by a margin of 67 percent to 22 percent. When divided by race, the depth of minority support is even more pronounced with support levels for Blacks (76%); Hispanics (65%) and overall total Non-white (74%) support all eclipsing white support (63%) by margins ranging from modest to significant.
Critics of school choice often say it fosters segregation. Do African-Americans and other minorities agree and think choice encourages school segregation? The Civitas Poll didn’t directly ask that question. However, it did ask:
Regardless of your overall opinion of parental choice, which of the following options do you think is the most convincing reason to oppose school choice?
Again, the results are interesting. Among whites, no response stood out. Sixteen percent of respondents chose “hurt public schools financially” and “encourage de facto segregation.” However, the largest response was “unsure” at 45 percent.
Do Blacks and other minorities think school choice programs encourage segregation? A plurality of black respondents (24 percent) said yes. However close behind – within the margin of error – are “leave public school students with higher needs” (23 percent) and “unsure” (23 percent). Among Blacks, the segregation question does not seem to have a clear answer. Twenty-four percent of Hispanics and Latinos think choice encourages de-facto segregation. However twice as many Hispanics and Latinos (50 percent) oppose choice because it “hurts public schools financially.” Among all non-white respondents “encourage de facto segregation” is only the third highest response (22 percent) on the list, behind “unsure” (24 percent) and “hurt public schools financially” (23 percent). This is to say that if school choice was indeed encouraging segregation, more minorities would certainly think so and would respond accordingly.
Is this a local or national development?
These results establish that minority support for school choice in North Carolina is certainly strong, and usually stronger than that of white respondents. Two questions come to mind. Is minority support for school choice in North Carolina an isolated development? And, do these trends mirror what is happening nationally?
Let’s start with the first question. A review of recent Civitas polls suggests strong minority support for school choice is not a recent development. In 2012, EdChoice and Civitas teamed up for a statewide school choice poll. Results showed minority support for vouchers eclipsed white support, 66 percent to 56 percent, but trailed whites on support for charters 67 percent to 62 percent[i] A 2015 Civitas Poll asked a similar question regarding the Opportunity Scholarship Program. Results had Black support at 80 percent, whites at 64 percent and other at 78 percent[ii] Lastly, a January 2017 Civitas Poll asked respondents about support for the Opportunity Scholarship Program. When divided by race, 80 percent of Blacks supported the program, Asians (74 percent) and 68 percent of whites. The same could be said for minority support for charter schools, where Black (74 percent) and Asian (76 percent) support again bested white (68%) support.[iii]
Again, recent national polls reflect the same. Polls by Education Next and the American Federation for Children all confirm high levels of minority support for school choice.
A 2019 Ed Next national poll found respondents supported the idea of charter schools 48 to 39 percent. When divided by race, Hispanic (51 percent) and Black (55 percent) both eclipsed white support (47 percent) for charter schools.
When respondents were asked about the idea of providing vouchers to low income families to allow them to enroll in private schools, respondents supported the proposal 49 percent to 41 percent. Again, when divided by race, minority support eclipsed overall support as well as support by whites; with Hispanic support at 69 percent, Black support at 67 percent and white support at 42 percent.
The same poll found that school choice divides Democrats along racial and ethnic lines with large pluralities of Black and Hispanic Democrats supporting charter schools. The poll found only 33 percent of white Democrats supported charters while 55 percent of Black Democrats and 47 percent of Hispanic Democrats did. The gulf between minority and white Democrats was even more pronounced when it came to the issue of targeted vouchers. The poll found 40 percent of white Democrats support targeted vouchers while 70 percent of Black Democrats and 67 percent of Hispanic Democrats do.
The National School Choice Poll by the American Federation of Children (January 2020) of 2,100 registered voters found similarly strong support for the concept of school choice among all races; with support among whites 64 percent; Blacks 68 percent, Hispanics 63 percent, and Asians 56 percent.
What do the numbers tell us?
It’s easy to get lost in all the numbers, but what does it all mean?
First and foremost, school choice advocates should be heartened by these developments. More support for school choice is always welcome, and especially from those significantly impacted by the conditions that propel school choice policies.
Secondly, the numbers also tell us the Democrats still have a problem with minorities and school choice. There is a racial divide within the party on charters and vouchers. Earlier this spring leading Democratic candidates and party leaders cast their lot with the teacher’s unions and sought to downplay the division but the divide is real and still there. Indeed, the strongest opposition to school choice continues to come from white Democrats, in contrast to people of color of all political stripes who strongly support choice.
If you don’t believe it, ask Florida. Bill Mattox of the James Madison Institute wrote in the Wall Street Journal how Ron DeSantis owes his surprise election victory to 100,000 African American “school choice moms” who unexpectedly voted for the Republican and tipped the election. It’s even more notable that DeSantis’ opponent in the race was African American. Of course, it remains to be seen how minority voters will vote in North Carolina and nationally. Will they vote their views on education or will they vote with the traditional party candidate? Either way the growing contingent of minority voters will have an impact.
Third, it’s important to put these numbers within the context of the current pandemic. With the Coronavirus still a threat to students and staff across the country, the majority of schools in North Carolina will be opening remotely. We’ve always had an achievement gap between the haves and the have-nots. The uneven pivot to remote learning this past spring has only served to harden that divide. Will the continuation of remote learning for many this fall serve to perpetuate it?
A recent study by Harvard-based Opportunity Insights, an education non-profit the provides math programs to schools, found that over the past four years the number of high- and low- income students participated in their programs at the same rate. However, after March 14, Opportunity Insights found that while participation by high-income students declined by 21 percent, participation by low-income students plunged 62 percent. As participation declined so did the number of lessons completed. This suggests that without additional options our increased dependence of remote learning, current conditions will contribute to poor students falling farther behind. And falling further behind is the number one reason why students drop out of school.
Support for school choice means we must provide children other options besides remote learning.
A recent article by Lenny McAllister on The 74, a site that covers education, underscored why it’s time to not only improve public education for all students but to also make sure that our students can access quality opportunities today.
The simple truth is: As we are beating back the resegregation of America while we compete against the world in a global economy, we cannot afford to exclusively count on an education system that treats more of our children’s schools like jails and where our children attend more segregated schools with inherent poverty and deficient resources. We cannot afford to wait until decades-long problems of funding formulas, mismatched teacher/student dynamics and deficiencies in math and reading scores are fixed before our children can be prepared for the future.
Yes, we must improve public education. At the same time, we must make sure that our children access quality education now.
For us to have a future, we must have a choice. It’s the only way for our communities to be as strong as possible.
Growing minority support for school choice can help to open options that we need to narrow the achievement gap. Charter schools, vouchers, ESAs can all help provide low income and minority kids access to a better education – and a better future. Now is the time to hear those voices and expand school choice for those who support it and need it most.
[i] North Carolina K-12 and School Choice Survey: What do voters say about K-12 education? Polling Paper 11, Paul Di Perna, September 2012, Friedman Foundation for Educational Choice and Civitas Institute
[ii] Civitas Poll, March 2015. See crosstabs.
[iii] Civitas Poll. January 2017. See crosstabs.