How to Win Over School-Choice Skeptics

Will Flanders:

A message about traditional value and civic virtue worked to drive up support among Republicans. But perhaps more surprisingly, among Democrats and minorities, messages about how school choice can increase racial diversity in schools and effectively level the playing field for low-income students increased support substantially. A slim majority — 51 percent — of Democrats expressed support for vouchers when told about their implications for diversity, compared with only 29 percent in the baseline condition where they only received a simple definition. Among independents, a message that private schools can be safer than traditional public schools increased support by about 15 points. These messages moved support above the 50 percent threshold among groups for which support for private school choice is traditionally lower, suggesting that there is ample space for education reformers to convince a broader audience of the value of education reform.

Among the messages that didn’t work is one that is near and dear to the hearts of many education reformers: information about test scores. Perhaps dishearteningly to some, most people in our survey were unmoved in their support for private school choice by information that test scores tend to be higher in choice schools.

These findings make sense in light of social-psychology research showing that people from different ideological perspectives process information in different ways. Conservatives are more interested in patriotic messages, while liberals are more interested in concepts such as fairness. It is only natural that the way in which we process information changes the manner in which we speak about issues like school choice. And as conservatives have come to dominate the education-reform agenda, their language has come to dominate the public discussion.

Related: Madison’s long term, disastrous reading results.