The GOP platform calls for ‘universal school choice.’ What would that mean for students?

National Republicans are poised to support “universal school choice” as part of the policy platform they adopt at next week’s convention in Milwaukee, a goal supporters see as the culmination of decades advocating for parents’ autonomy to pick their children’s schools. To opponents, it’s a thinly veiled blueprint for gutting public education.

The term can mean different things to different people — from erasing school boundaries, to open enrollment, to being able to curate your child’s individual curriculum, to parental control over K-12 course content.

But education experts across the political spectrum interpret the GOP platform’s wording as favoring the type of approach adopted in states like West Virginia and Ohio, which make available taxpayer-funded vouchers, or scholarships, that can follow a child regardless of income to any public or private school.

“In our way of thinking, this is kind of your money, your children and your choice for where they want to go to school,” said Lisa B. Nelson, CEO of the American Legislative Exchange Council, which launched an Education Freedom Alliance in January to fight for just that. About a dozen states now have such programs, and proposals are in play in another 16, according to the alliance.

Nelson said this is the first time the GOP platform has gone beyond merely supporting school choice to calling for it as a universal option. It remains unclear how that would come to pass, given the platform also calls for shuttering the U.S. Department of Education, founded in 1979, and sending education policy-making “back to the States, where it belongs.”

Republican Donald Trump’s presidential campaign didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment on the platform.

“Republicans believe families should be empowered to choose the best Education for their children,” the platform says.

James Singer, a spokesperson for President Joe Biden’s re-election campaign, said eliminating the department — which oversees Head Start, administers student financial aid programs, conducts education research and enforces civil rights laws — “isn’t just bad policy, it would rip vital support away from our most vulnerable children, leaving them less likely to graduate from high school or attend college.”

Chad Aldis, vice president for Ohio policy at the conservative Thomas B. Fordham Institute, said declaring universal school choice as a policy goal and carrying it out are two very different things.

“I think empowering families with high quality options is the right approach, but the details on how much funding is available, whether there are income constraints, those are the types of questions that would have to be answered,” he said.

State programs have faced a host of legal and practical questions, as voucher programs once available only to low-income students in academically struggling districts have evolved into catch-all offerings applicable to public, private, religious and charter schools. Opponents argue the expansive programs take money away public schools that serve most of the country’s students and benefit higher-income families choosing to attend expensive private or religious schools.

The Hope Scholarship Program in West Virginia survived a constitutional challenge in 2022, but the number of school districts signing onto a lawsuit against Ohio’s EdChoice has ballooned since the voucher program became universal last summer.

This year’s Republican plank also calls for treating “Homeschooling Families equally,” which could take universality to yet another level.

Kim Anderson, executive director of the National Education Association, the nation’s largest teachers union, said Republicans’ plan would “throw chaos into the lives of American families” without addressing what parents tell her members are their two highest priorities: the availability of mental health services and school safety.

“Public education has been a common good in this country since its inception, and to eliminate public education puts our democracy and our economy and the fabric of a diverse, inclusive society at risk,” she said.

Other policy priorities include: stripping federal funds from any school that engages in “inappropriate political indoctrination,” guaranteeing that students can pray and read the Bible in school, “hardening” schools’ disciplinary standards as a way of curbing violence, eliminating teacher tenure and adopting merit pay, and rejecting efforts to nationalize civics education.

Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, decried the entire GOP education platform, saying it sets up “a defunding mechanism and a mechanism to give a tax break to the wealthy.”

“My question to them is, what are they afraid of?” she said. “Why are they afraid of critical thinking? Why are they afraid of freedom to learn and freedom to teach? Why are they afraid of honest history? Why are they afraid of diversity?”

ALEC’s Nelson said supporters of choice believe vigorous competition makes all schools better.

And calls for broadening school choice are not coming exclusively from Republicans. In Louisiana, six Democrats voted in favor of a universal school choice bill in April.

“As I watch children in poverty, trapped in failing schools, who can hardly read, I’d be damned if I will continue to defend the status quo,” Democratic Rep. Jason Hughes, who represents New Orleans, opined on the floor before casting his vote.

Democrats also have voted in favor of expanded school choice in Nebraska and Pennsylvania. In Georgia, state Rep. Mesha Mainor left the party last year in part because of a differences over school vouchers.

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The Associated Press’ education coverage receives financial support from multiple private foundations. AP is solely responsible for all content. Find AP’s standards for working with philanthropies, a list of supporters and funded coverage areas at AP.org.

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