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Arkansas PoliticsEducation/School ChoiceWatch

Wolf: There’s A Lot of Excitement Surrounding School Choice in AR

Dr. Patrick Wolf joins Conduit News to discuss the exciting new school choice bill that recently passed in Arizona, and how the issue of school choice is a litmus test for those running for political office.


Entire Transcript:

(GL) Hi, my name is Ginny Lauren Dowden for Conduit News. And today once again, we have Dr. Patrick Wolf joining us in the studio. As many of you know, he is a Distinguished Professor of Education Policy at the University of Arkansas. He is also an expert on School Choice. Hi. Thank you so much for joining us once again.

(Wolf) Happy to be here, Ginny.

(GL) We want to talk to you about, obviously, school choice, what it seems like everyone is talking about right now, especially on the political front lines. Arizona recently passed something that is the first in the nation, a universal school choice bill. Talk to us about why that is so significant right now.

(Wolf) Sure. This is the first realized in the economist Milton Friedman’s vision for school choice in the US. And his idea is that K-12 education should be government funded, but not necessarily government provided. So it is public education, but not necessarily delivered exclusively by government run public schools. So Arizona has embraced that vision with a program where every child, every K-12 12th child in Arizona is eligible for what’s called an education savings account.

So basically, they take the foundation funding of the child and put it in an account, an expenditure account that parents can control to customize their child’s education, to buy private school tuition, tutoring therapies, textbooks, you know, whatever is necessary for the child to be effectively educated and parents are at the controls for that. And this is the first universal program where money follows the child and doesn’t get stuck in a particular education system. It’s really been called the gold standard of school choice. And Arizona got there first.

(GL) Talk to us about how they got there. They have a very unique political system in the way that the votes have to come down. Of all the states that got it done, it was Arizona. 

(Wolf) So Arizona has a Republican Governor, Doug Ducey. He was a lame duck governor because he’s not running for reelection. They also have Republican control of both their House and Senate, but only by a single vote. And the Republican caucus stuck together on this issue every yay vote was from a Republican. Every nay vote was from a Democrat. And so, you know, with that bare margin of a single vote, the Republicans got the their signature education initiative passed.

(GL) A few things from what you just said that I want to point out. First would be that Democrats tend to fall in lockstep and in line with opposing school choice. School choice has not always been a divisive, partisan issue. Talk to us about that.

(Wolf) Yeah. When I first started studying school choice 25 years ago, it was a very bipartisan issue. In fact, I interacted with more Democrats than Republicans when I started this work, when I published my coauthored book, The School Choice Journey in 2014. Senator Joe Lieberman wrote the preface to the book. Famously, Joe Lieberman was the Democratic vice president candidate in 2000 when Al Gore headed the ticket.

He was a very prominent Democrat and a huge supporter of school choice. But pro-school choice Democrats have just about gone extinct over the last decade. And a part of that is because the national teachers unions exclusively fund Democrats now and they make it a litmus test for their financial contributions that Democrats oppose school choice. So Democrats have been driven away from school choice over the last decade, even as it’s become more popular among the public. And there have been more successful programs launched.

(GL) It has been said, especially over the past year, that parents are the new special interest group. They are really making a difference with these political candidates who are running in the primaries or in November. We’re seeing across the nation people who support school choice are winning in these races. Talk to us about why that is so important, especially as a conservative right now, as a Republican, just as school choice is a litmus test for the Democrats. It’s to be said for Republicans as well right now.

(Wolf) Yes, that’s an excellent point, Ginny. It used to be that school choice was one of those policy issues where there was one organized interest that cared the teachers unions and then the people who were on the other side supporting school choice weren’t organized. There were lots of them: parents, education reform advocates and such. But they weren’t organized. They didn’t have the power and the focus of organization.

That’s changed recently. The National Parent Union is a great example of that. Moms for Liberty is another great example. Parents have bonded together into an organized force, and they’re really making a difference politically on this issue. And they’re finding a much more comfortable home with Republicans. Republicans are much more open to the idea of a free market providing effective services and goods to individuals, even if they’re publicly funded. And so basically, just as pro school choice, Democrats are becoming extinct, anti school choice Republicans are becoming extinct. Especially in this electoral season, this this latest round of primary elections when pro school choice candidates are being challenged by anti school choice candidates, the pro school choice candidates are overwhelmingly winning in Republican primaries across the country.

(GL) How does that translate Arkansas? We have had a really difficult time passing anything that resembles full school choice legislation. Do you think that now is the time come January that can happen?

(Wolf) There is a lot of excitement surrounding school choice in Arkansas. There are there are many folks who are looking to expand our existing pilot programs or maybe even consider something brand new. But, you know, there’s definitely excitement there. There’s momentum there. We have a strong candidate for governor in the Republican Party, Sarah Huckabee Sanders, and her education adviser is Gretchen Conger, who was the deputy chief of staff to Governor Doug Ducey in Arizona and spearheaded the successful push for universal school choice in Arizona. So she did it in Arizona. Miss Conger did … presumably the fact that that Sarah Sanders has hired her as an adviser is a signal that the woman very likely to be our future governor is sympathetic and supportive of that policy.

(GL) Well, we certainly hope so. We think that would be an excellent, excellent thing to happen. Anything else that you want to mention that we have not touched on? Well, before I let you go, let me ask you about this. Okay. In Texas, the Republican Party overwhelmingly said, yes, we support school choice. And they indicated that they would vote for legislation regarding school choice.

But those legislators in more rural areas are still saying, hang on a second. There’s not many options for our students and for families in these smaller areas. Arkansas, as you know, has a lot of rural communities. So is that is that a downside to school choice? What would you say to those people who live in those smaller communities?

(Wolf) Yeah, I think rural communities have nothing to fear from parental school choice. The local district run public school is going to remain a center of the community. And most kids are going to be educated there. But for the kids who need something different, even in rural areas, school choice can can allow that through hybrid schooling and virtual schooling, homeschooling.

Small charter schools in rural areas are very successful. And some small private schools. So there should be options for the kids for whom the community government run public school isn’t the best option. But still, most kids are going to go there in rural areas and you’ll still have football on Friday night and you’ll still have volleyball and cheer and all the things that people like about their neighborhood public school. But you’ll also have options for kids who need something different.

(GL) That’s awesome. Okay. Anything else you want to add? We hope that you come back and join us again soon.

(Wolf) It’s a very exciting season to be a school choice researcher. And there’s so much happening. Basically, this convergence of coming out of the COVID pandemic with exciting new options for parents and students, that’s really where all the energy and momentum comes from.

(GL) Well, thank you so much for joining us. We always really appreciate your insight.

(Wolf) You’re welcome.

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