We’ve lost our advantage on education’: Democrats grasp for wins on public schools

Juan Perez, Jr.

Public schools are confronting significant post-Covid enrollment shifts to private and home schools. Policies that grant students access to school options beyond their traditional neighborhood campus are popular. That has left Cardona to protect the schoolhouse castle, navigate longstanding disagreements between labor unions and liberal education reform groups, and advance a distinctive Democratic vision of education that appeals to families and voters.

“We shouldn’t be promoting private schools because our neighborhood schools are not making the grade,” Cardona said as he rolled from an exurban Minnesota technical college toward a city dual-language elementary school. “We should make sure we’re working to support our neighborhood schools to make the grade.”

Here’s the thing. Private choice is taking off — and fast.

Republican governors in Arkansas, Iowa, Ohio, Florida and elsewhere are now presiding over major expansions of programs that give families public subsidies to pay for private school tuition and other education expenses. Oklahoma officials are also leading a campaign to open explicitly religious public schools, which some church leaders and conservative advocates see as a monumental leap for school choice and religious liberty.

Public school enrollment meanwhile dropped by 3 percent in the first year of the coronavirus pandemic, a plunge of some 1.4 million students. There are also signs liberals have failed to regain the broad trust on education they once held with voters.

“Neither the administration, nor the left, has offered an alternative to the private school choice options that Republicans are offering,” said Elorza, a former mayor of Providence, R.I., who supported then-Gov. Gina Raimondo’s bid to have the state take over his city’s troubled school system and made headlines when he declared his family would not send their young son to the city’s public schools.