Opinion

Black Americans Demand School Choice. Is Joe Biden Listening?

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Posted: Mar 14, 2020 12:01 AM
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Black Americans Demand School Choice. Is Joe Biden Listening?

Source: AP Photo/Paul Vernon

Editor's note: This column was authored by Satya Marar. 

After sweeping victories this week and on Super Tuesday, it’s becoming inevitable that Joe Biden will score the Democrat presidential nomination. And he’ll owe it in no small part to African American voters who’ve helped spearhead his campaign’s resurgence. He knows it, too. “There’s only one reason I’ve come back,” he told the congregation at New Hope Baptist Church in Jackson, Mississippi on Sunday. “The African American community all around the country.”

But setbacks like his racially insensitive gaffes mean that this support can’t be taken for granted — especially if he’s to eventually entice minority voters who aren’t committed Democrats in a general election. Reversing his opposition to school choice, then, would be a smart way to solidify him in their good graces — as it's clear that’s a policy priority to them.

As it stands in America, the majority of students’ schools are assigned based on their zip code. This locks kids (who could have better opportunities elsewhere) into schools that might not be the best fit.

Instead of allowing students to take money earmarked for their education to whichever school is most suitable for them, as school choice policies like voucher programs and open enrollment do, state and federal governments instead fund public school districts. This means that low-performing public schools have less incentive to improve their offerings, as they either won’t lose students (who are deeply dissatisfied with the status quo) to other schools, or won’t lose all the funding attached to a student even if they do leave.

Wealthy Americans, like Biden and his family, already exercise school choice — they can afford to send their kids to private schools, or to relocate their families to the catchment areas of good public schools.

That’s why his opposition to school choice is so strange, because all it does is deny options to low-income families and traps them in failing schools.

And contrary to Biden’s claims, just throwing more funding at public schools has not improved student outcomes or education quality. American schoolkids lag behind their international peers in other developed countries, despite the government spending far more per-pupil than those countries do. Notably, many of the countries that beat the United States on academics, including France, Ireland, Belgium and Korea, prioritize school choice.

And so do African American voters. 

Indeed, a 2015 survey by the peer-reviewed journal Education Next found that nearly 6 in 10 supported giving “all families with children in public schools a wider choice, by allowing them to enroll their children in private schools instead, with the government helping to pay the tuition.” And consistent majorities of African Americans in Alabama, Louisiana, Tennessee and New Jersey, as well as in 2016 polling across the United States, have resoundingly supported school choice.

It’s not hard to see why. Studies find that being able to transfer into a charter school from the locally-assigned public school delivers overwhelming benefits for black students, like better academic outcomes — especially those from low-income backgrounds. And remarkably, providing these options also benefited children in traditional public schools nearby, as competition from local charters drives a boost in outcomes.

But academics aren’t the only reason why families might choose different schools. They might do so for safety reasons, to access more competitive sports or arts programs, or because their kid simply fits in better and can thrive in another school, even if its average academic results aren’t as strong as their current school. The point is, parents and students — not bureaucrats — should be in the drivers’ seat. What could be more empowering than that?

Furthermore, 7 out of 8 studies on school voucher programs in major U.S. cities find that they help with racial integration. While attempts to reduce racial segregation in school districts through court mandates, such as in Little Rock, Arkansas, may have achieved that as well, they also inadvertently resulted in more segregated neighborhoods, as many white Americans left the inner-city for the suburbs. Making zip codes irrelevant and giving low-income families the choice of independent schooling options, then, can mitigate those issues.

While it would certainly be a prudent political move, Biden shouldn’t support school choice just because it could help him get elected. He should support it so he can do right by American families and children of all backgrounds.

Satya Marar is a Policy Analyst with Reason Foundation and a Young Voices Education Policy Fellow. Follow him on Twitter: @MisterJEET