Has School Choice Become The Litmus Test For 2020 Democrats?

American politics is a sport of trends.

In 2016, we witnessed a progressive uprising among Democrats and left-leaning independents who embraced Sen. Bernie Sanders’ vision of “democratic socialism.” The Vermont Senator may have gone on to lose that race against frontrunner Hillary Clinton, but his platform was no less successful.

Bernie moved the party to the left, setting a trend of “progressive” litmus tests that all would-be Democratic candidates must pass before they can be considered real contenders.

In 2016, Democrats had to prove their moxie on key issues like Roe v. Wade and marriage equality. During the 2018 midterms, they harped on Supreme Court nominees and resistance to the President. But now, as America gears up for a bloodbath of a reelection year, it seems like 2020 Democrats will have a new hurdle to clear: school choice.

We can already see the groundwork being laid. Bernie Sanders just called for a charter school ban. Elizabeth Warren, who was once a champion of choice, has flip-flopped on her original support for charters and voucher programs. Even Cory Booker, who rose to fame as the reformer-in-chief of Newark, is beginning to walk back his love for school choice.

Tough words for a state with only three charter schools. If this is where we are now in May 2019, imagine how the school choice wars will only escalate.

Looking around the nation, it’s easy to see why school choice has become an issue of national interest. We’ve seen how teacher “sickouts” and protests have broken out in the Bluegrass and beyond, including states like West Virginia, Oklahoma, and Arizona. Right now in California, there’s a huge battle brewing over a proposed charter school moratorium that’s got parent activists and teachers unions going head-to-head.

Right here in Kentucky, we witnessed more than fifty public educators run for office last year, partly as a result of a new charter authorization law. In a sense, the Bluegrass State is microcosm of sorts for a nation that’s quickly embroiling itself in a battle over school choice, and undoubtedly, 2020 Democrats have been paying attention to these shifting winds, looking to form alliances with major teachers unions that may help them separate themselves from the pack.

It’s good political drama, but a bad litmus test for Democratic hopefuls.

That’s primarily because the plan hasn’t worked. We saw it firsthand here in Kentucky last year, where teachers ran and mostly lost on pro-union, anti-charter school platforms. Out of 51 teacher candidates, only 14 won, and many of those were incumbents who had already been in office for several terms anyway.

That’s not to say that teachers unions like the KEA haven’t been important, powerful players in the policy sphere, but their political endorsements haven’t always played out for aspiring public officials. The reality is that there just aren’t that many strictly-education voters out there.

But furthermore, if school choice is the hill that 2020 Democrats have decided they want to die on, they’ll be going against the majority of American voters.

A study released by Democrats for Education Reform last fall shows that 65 percent of all U.S. voters support public access to charter schools, magnet schools, and career academies, with with Latino voters’ support for school choice at a similar rate and Black voters’ support even higher (86 percent). Democrats will be counting on a high turnout rate among minority voters to flip crucial swing states and defeat Trump, so ratcheting up the rhetoric against charter schools seems to be… a really bad way to do that.

Perhaps this is just one of many points of departure on this long, winding road to 2020. But for parents and advocates, it’s an important one, and it’s crucial that Democrats get it right.

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