School Choice Movement Needs Better Messaging

School Choice Movement Needs Better Messaging
AP Photo/Nevada Appeal, Brad Coman
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We education reformers are a confident bunch. Armed with peer-reviewed, often gold-standard studies, we aim to convince the world that school choice helps children. Our methodologies — complex statistical analyses — are so sound that we believe our conclusions simply must be accepted. After all, peer-reviewed literature has shown school choice to improve student outcomes, such as graduation rates, test scores, safety, and criminality.

Yet we fall into two traps: We overload people with information, and we don’t fully understand which school-choice messages resonate with different groups of voters. This is why the Wisconsin Institute for Law & Liberty (WILL) conducted a survey experiment of 1,500 adults in Wisconsin, a political bellwether state with demographic and partisan breakdowns mirroring other Midwestern states. Through message testing, we were able to learn which descriptions of school choice resonate with different demographics and partisans. Using the results, we came up with these three messaging suggestions for national education reform leaders

1. Inform Republicans that school choice is a bedrock party issue. Even when a “school voucher program” is explained in the most generic manner, roughly 71 percent of Republicans support it. Charter schools exhibit similar baseline support. Taking a step back, it is worth understanding just how significant it is to have 70–80 percent support. Compared to recent polling, GOP support for vouchers is roughly on par in Wisconsin with building the border wall and with Gov. Walker’s 2011 collective bargaining reform law, Act 10.

But support among Republicans can increase even more when they are informed that school choice can “increase the civic virtue and patriotism of participating students by exposing them to moral values and America’s founding principles.” Under this condition, Republican support for school vouchers increased to 81.4 percent. Interestingly, explanations of improving test scores and graduation rates due to school choice do not move the needle significantly among Republicans, perhaps reflecting a repudiation of the Bush-era accountability push.

Put another way, on both policy and politics, school choice should clearly be imbedded into the Republican Party’s platform and agenda for K–12 education policy.

2. Explain to Democrats how school choice gives minorities opportunities. On the surface, vouchers are not a base issue for Democrats. When Democrats are provided with same definition that garnered over 70 percent support among Republicans, only 25 percent support a voucher program.

But school choice can be made more bipartisan. First, Democrats are receptive to vouchers when they are told that vouchers “increase school diversity by offering minority students an opportunity to attend schools that would otherwise be closed off to them.” For African-Americans, who largely vote Democratic, the explanation of diversity increased support for vouchers from 29 to 63 percent — a staggering shift. Democrats are also receptive to a similar message that highlighted the unfairness of denying low-income kids the opportunity to attend schools generally only open to those of greater means.

In Wisconsin, at least, this also indicates that Democrats who believe in education reform are underrepresented in Madison. Consider that each of the Democrats running against Gov. Walker wants to reverse the Milwaukee Parental Choice Program, which would essentially kick low-income children out of high-performing schools and in most cases close those schools.

3. Talk more about Education Savings Accounts (ESAs). According to our survey, ESAs are actually more popular than vouchers. ESAs allow parents to use money that would have been spent on public schools to completely customize their children’s education. The funds could be spent on private school tuition, online courses, college courses, and transportation. A shocking 64 percent of respondents are in favor of ESAs across the board with 80 percent of Republicans in favor, 69 percent of independents, 46 percent of Democrats, 66 percent of rural residents, 67 percent of suburbanites, and 71 percent of urbanites. Six states currently have ESA programs — though Nevada’s is not funded — and many more have introduced bills. This poll should increase the faith of policymakers in ESAs as a winning issue across the ideological spectrum.

Education reform leaders need to agree on a straightforward, 30-second pitch for the movement and learn how to tailor those words to the people we are talking to. The Left, in collaboration with the media, has damaged the reputation of the education reform movement. However, school choice is a convincing idea. By using the right words to describe education reform and by knowing which parts of the movement to highlight to different types of people, we can spread the news of the movement’s success and persuade voters that the best way to educate our students is to give parents education choice.

CJ Szafir is Executive Vice President at Wisconsin Institute for Law & Liberty, and Cori O’Connor Petersen is Writer and Research Associate at Wisconsin Institute for Law & Liberty.

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