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Wisconsin Spotlight | Sept 24, 2020

MADISON — A new poll finds a signifiant increase in support for school choice, as parents and students grow increasingly frustrated by inadequate virtual learning models forced on them by public schools.

The RealClear Opinion Research survey  of 2,020 registered voters nationwide finds a 10 point jump in support for the concept of school choice — from 67 percent to 77 percent — since the last poll in April.

It also found 80 percent of public school parents — 72 percent of Democrats, 76 percent of Republicans, and 73 percent of independents support this statement: “On average, American taxpayers spend $15,424 per student nationwide on K-12 public education. Would you support or oppose giving parents a portion of those funds to use for home, virtual, or private education if public schools do not reopen for in-person classes?”

And 78 percent of public school parents surveyed said they would support their governor sending new funding for K-12 education directly to families and allowing them to choose how to use those funds to support their child’s education.

The poll was conducted for the American Federation for Children, a nonpartisan national organization with a mission to “empower families, especially lower-income families, with the freedom to choose the best K-12 education for their children.”

“This polling data shows one of the most astounding short-term jumps in support for educational choice policies. Clearly, families are incredibly frustrated at the district schools’ response to this crisis and are tired of the months and months of fumbles,” AFC President John Schilling said in a statement. “The inflexibility of our K-12 system is on full display, leaving families to scramble as the special interests that have controlled our public education system for generations continue to oppose giving families and students greater educational choice.”

Those special interests include Wisconsin’s teachers unions working with their top ally, Gov. Tony Evers. The Democrat has long been an opponent of Wisconsin’s private school voucher program, the longest-standing parental school choice program in the nation. He fought against it when he led the state Department of Public Instruction for a decade, and he targeted the state’s choice program in one of his first acts as governor.

Jim Bender, president of School Choice Wisconsin, said the biggest takeaway from the poll is that the partisan nature of school choice seems to be evaporating amid the pandemic and the government edicts that have shut down in-person classes.

“It’s not a theoretical thing anymore, where it used to be someone else’s kids. Now, under COVID, it’s ‘my own kid.’ And as soon as it becomes ‘my own kid,’ the partisanship goes away,” Bender said.

Local health officers in counties and communities throughout Wisconsin have ordered all schools — including private and charter schools — to go all virtual. In Dane County, parents have fought back, suing the county health department. The Wisconsin Supreme Court earlier this month issued an injunction against the health order barring in-person education until the court rules on a lawsuit. Dane County private and choice schools quickly reopened after the injunction was announced.

After months of virtual learning, polling shows a majority of parents prefer classroom or hybrid (virtual and in-person) education to all virtual.

“We’re now into the fall. Now we’ve got situations where parents understand what’s going on. They are seeing what works and what doesn’t,” Bender said. “And their complaints are falling on deaf ears.”

Schilling, of the American Federation for Children, says families are desperate for other options and, more than ever, support governors and other policymakers responding to their concerns.

“We urge these policymakers to give families flexibility, relief, and support by providing more opportunities for them to choose the best K-12 educational environment for their son or daughter,” he said.

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