Jacques: School choice on ballot in 2016

Ingrid Jacques
The Detroit News

Republicans and Democrats differ widely on many issues, but one of the most glaring is education. That gap keeps widening, as witnessed by the rhetoric at the national conventions and what’s included in the party platforms.

The GOP platform doubles down on school choice and empowering parents — something Donald Trump says he supports. While he hasn’t gotten into the weeds on school reform (fairly common with the GOP nominee), his choice of Indiana Gov. Mike Pence as his running mate is a positive sign. Pence is known for being a supporter of innovative choice programs in his state.

In stark contrast, Hillary Clinton is helping move the Democrats even further left on education. Desperate to earn the support of powerful teachers unions, Clinton is pandering to the unions and basically repeating their talking points.

Even though their union leaders got on board with Clinton early on, many public school teachers were hesitant to back Clinton, as they didn’t appreciate much of what the Obama administration did to encourage states to put accountability measures in place. And former Education Secretary Arne Duncan was fairly friendly to charter schools, which also upset unions.

“Unions are reasserting their control in the Democratic Party,” says Matt Frendewey, national communications director for the American Federation for Children. “They invested early in Clinton.”

The federation held events in both Cleveland and Philadelphia, advocating the group’s school choice mission.

Pence would bring a strong education resume to the White House and could potentially help shake up stagnant U.S. school performance — despite $70 billion spent each year. In Indiana, he accelerated reforms started by his predecessor, Gov. Mitch Daniels. Pence oversaw additional oversight on charter schools as well as expanded the state’s voucher program for low-income families.

While neither candidate would have the ability to tell states how to run their schools, the White House does offer several avenues of influence.

It offers a “bully pulpit,” Frendewey says, from which the president can encourage certain reforms and courses of action. And given the amount of funding schools receive from the feds, financial incentives can also help shape state policies.

Presidents can also encourage Congress to include more school choice measures. It missed that opportunity last year when it failed to include Title I portability in a re-authorization of No Child Left Behind, which would have allowed funding for low-income students to follow them to the school of their choice.

And a friendly White House could help sway funding for the D.C. Opportunity Scholarship Program, which offers vouchers to in-need families in the district so they can send their children to private schools. President Barack Obama has repeatedly tried to strip funding for the program, which is in high demand and boasts graduation rates of 95 percent. Each year, more than 2,000 families apply and less than 10 percent generally get accepted.

Clinton recently told the American Federation of Teachers that Pence is “one of the most hostile politicians in America when it comes to public education.”

What’s hostile is protecting union interests over better school choices for families.

Twitter: @Ingrid_Jacques