As protesters around the country continue to call for racial justice, President Donald Trump, administration officials, and his reelection campaign have focused on a familiar issue: school choice.
Their decision to promote school choice—specifically the promotion of charter schools and public funding for private education— as a civil rights issue may serve several purposes for the president’s re-election effort.
The familiar phrase fits neatly onto a list of policy priorities from Trump’s first term. And some polling shows support for choice initiatvies among Black voters, giving Trump a way to discuss equity concerns without focusing solely on police reform. While Trump has said he supports a policing bill introduced by Senate Republicans, he has also stressed his support for law enforcement, calling for “law and order” and aggressive responses to widespread protests.
“We’re fighting for school choice, which really is the civil rights of all time in this country,” Trump said as he announced an executive order on policing in the White House Rose Garden last week. “Frankly, school choice is the civil rights statement of the year, of the decade, and probably beyond—because all children have to have access to quality education. A child’s zip code in America should never determine their future, and that’s what was happening.”
Trump also brought up school choice in a Tulsa, Okla., campaign rally Saturday, saying his opponent, former Vice President Joe Biden, had “trapped young children in failing government schools” with the policies he supported during his long legislative career. As a candidate, Biden has said he opposes vouchers and for-profit charter schools.
Most recently, on Tuesday, Vice President Mike Pence visited Waukesha STEM Academy, a charter school in Waukesha, Wis., for a “school choice roundtable” discussion with U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos, Trump aide Kellyanne Conway, parents, educators, and Black and Hispanic school choice advocates.
Interestingly, participants and Trump officials used the term “school choice” instead of “education freedom,” a phrase DeVos has used to pitch her proposal for a $5 billion annual “Education Freedom Scholarship” program that would provide federal tax credits for scholarship contributions in states that choose to participate. In addition to that proposal, participants discussed support for charter schools and a plan to use coronavirus relief funds for “microgrants” that would help families pay for alternatives to public schools that closed during the pandemic.
“It’s about simply empowering parents so that there are no forgotten children, so there are no futures lost,” Pence said.
Critics have said the Trump administration’s education agenda would drive funding away from public schools at a time when they need it most.
“As Secretary of Education, DeVos has pursued a radical, destructive agenda to reduce funding for our public K-12 schools and universities,” Biden Communications Director Kate Bedingfield said in a statement Tuesday.
The discussion stirs up debate from the Democratic primary, when candidates sparred over the party’s support for charter schools.
Democrats for Education Reform, a nonprofit group that supports charters, conducted a May 2019 poll with the Bennenson Strategy Group showing that 51 percent of Democratic primary voters do not supporter charters. In much of its public discussion of the poll, however, DFER stressed that the majority of black and Hispanic primary voters, but not their white peers, support charters. Some 2020 presidential candidates, like Sen. Corey Booker, D-N.J., supported “high-quality charters.” And a group of largely Black advocates challenged candidates on the issue.
There are divisions among school choice advocates. Some charter school boosters, for example, think DeVos has been too divisive, hitching their concerns to the debate over private school vouchers and tax-credit scholarships, which don’t always win as much public support in polls. They also surface civil rights concerns about using public funding for private schools that may restrict students’ attendance based on issues like sexual orientation.
“What the Trump Administration is selling is no choice at all, but a false promise for families that risks exacerbating inequitable outcomes for historically underserved students through a system that is wholly devoid of accountability,” DFER said in a statement after Trump raised the tax-credit scholarship plan in his February State of the Union address.
But those concerns haven’t stopped the Trump team from ramping up talk about school choice in speeches and on social media in recent weeks.
Thank you, President @realdonaldtrump and @VP for your continued commitment to our nation’s students and their success. We cannot rest until each and every child in America can learn in ways and in places that work for them. All students need #SchoolChoiceNow. https://t.co/2PA52GpB6t
— Secretary Betsy DeVos (@BetsyDeVosED) June 23, 2020
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) June 19, 2020
Photo: Vice President Mike Pence participates in a school choice roundtable event at Waukesha STEM Academy Tuesday in Waukesha, Wis. --AP Photo/Morry Gash