DAILY SIGNAL: School Choice Advocate Corey DeAngelis Explains Why Freedom Is Winning Education Revolution

More parents than ever are taking their kids out of failing public schools and educating them in the way that benefits them most, whether that’s in a private or charter school, or through homeschooling.

In the vanguard of the fight to achieve school choice across the nation is Corey DeAngelis. DeAngelis is a senior fellow at the American Federation for Children, adjunct senior fellow at the Reason Foundation, and executive director at the Educational Freedom Institute.

He joins this episode of “The Daily Signal Podcast” to discuss how school choice is gaining ground, and how proponents can keep the momentum for education freedom going.

Listen to the podcast below or read the lightly edited transcript:

Doug Blair: My guest today is Corey DeAngelis, senior fellow at the American Federation for Children, adjunct senior fellow at the Reason Foundation, and executive director at the Educational Freedom Institute. Quite a resume. Corey, welcome to the show.

Corey DeAngelis: Hey, thanks for having me.

Blair: Of course, let’s talk school choice. It seems like it’s been a really good year for school choice, lots of victories to notch up. But, where have we seen some of these sort of biggest victories for school choice around the country?

DeAngelis: Yeah, the wind is at our backs and the teachers unions have overplayed their hand. And at this point, they’re actively destroying their own empire by inserting political nonsense into the classroom, and by pushing and lobbying the [Centers for Disease Control and Prevention] to keep the schools closed for so long, parents have woken up, they’re pushing back.

And we’re seeing them winning school board races, we’re seeing that it’s politically profitable to support school choice, but we’re also seeing real legislative victories on the ground.

In 2021, we dubbed it “The Year of School Choice” because 19 states expanded or enacted programs to fund students as opposed to systems.

And then just this past month, Arizona just one-upped them all and said, “You know what? We’re just going to pass you guys all up.” [Arizona Gov.] Doug Ducey signed into law what was the biggest school choice victory in U.S. history.

Every single Arizona family, regardless of income, regardless of background, will be able to take their kids’ state-funded education dollars to the education providers that they’re choosing. So that could be a public school, a private school, a charter school, or a home-based education option. In Arizona, that happens to be around $7,000 per student.

And this is the gold standard of educational freedom. With this victory, Arizona just clearly cemented itself as the No. 1 state for educational freedom and parental rights in education.

This is the North Star for school choice, is what we’ve all been fighting for. And now, I’m hoping this will spark friendly competition with other states, particularly other red states.

We already see pushes happening in Texas right now. Gov. [Greg] Abbott just made his most forceful endorsement of school choice just a couple of months ago. I just met with him in Austin, Texas, last week.

And I’m looking forward to see what happens out there in big states like Texas, but also, hey, [Florida] Gov. Ron DeSantis. Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey just essentially walked up to DeSantis and snatched the school choice championship belt out of his hands.

But look, DeSantis can come back and do the same thing and empower every single family to be able to choose the education providers that best work for their kids and best align with their values.

So, I’m looking forward to next year. The winning has just begun.

Blair: Excellent. Well, that sounds great. So, Arizona has this particular strategy toward pushing for school choice. What are we seeing in the future? I guess, other states sort of mimicking the Arizona model or are they starting to do their own things?

DeAngelis: Yeah. So in 2021, we already had, again, those 19 victories. Another big one was West Virginia, another red state that they have the second-most expansive education savings account program in the nation right now—which is about 93% of the school-aged population is eligible and it’s a switcher requirement, which we won’t get into details of what that means, it just means you need to switch out of a public school to use the program—will bust off, I believe, after just a couple of years of program implementation.

So that will be essentially like the Arizona program as well, built into the law.

But look, it tends to be red states and every single red state should be able to get this done next year. I’m looking all eyes on Iowa right now. The Iowa Senate just passed an expansive education savings account proposal that was pushed very hard by the Iowa governor, Kim Reynolds.

She’s a staunch supporter of educational freedom. And she even held the Legislature late because the House, which had 60% Republican, 60 of the 100 seats were “Republican seats,” they weren’t able to get it done this past session.

But she endorsed nine candidates. In most of those races, a clear dividing line was the issue of school choice and she helped win eight of those nine races.

So it looks like we are going to have something passed in Iowa as well. So, all eyes on Iowa.

And just another thing on Arizona, they have the slimmest of margins in their state House. They have one-seat majority, of Republican majority, in their House and their Senate. They obviously have the governor’s office as well. …

This is a Republican Party platform issue. Republican voters support it, Democratic voters support it as well, but particularly Republican voters. If Arizona can get it done, any red state should be able to get this done.

Texas, for example, they have a 58% Republican House, much larger majority than what they have in Arizona. And I just got to say, Republicans all across the country have a golden opportunity to become the parents party. Arizona just showed him how it’s done.

Blair: Now, it’s interesting that you mentioned that this is like a Republican thing, too, because the school boards and the sort of education debate has generally existed in the sphere of the Democrats. I mean, I think it was very recently that shift happened, that more Americans trust Republicans on education than Democrats. Where did we start to see that shift?

DeAngelis: With the school closures and parents getting to see what the heck was going on in the classroom, parents who previously thought that their kids were in great public schools, whether it was because they got “A” rating from the state, whether it was because their kids came home with good grades on their report cards, or whether they did a good job on the state standardized test, those same parents who weren’t paying attention as much because they thought their kids were in a great place that was focusing on education started to see that the schools were implementing indoctrination instead.

And that turned off a light bulb in the heads of parents, and they’re never going to forget what they saw in 2020 and 2021. And they’re going to push to make sure they never feel powerless when it comes to their kids’ education ever again.

So I’m optimistic that this parent revolution, this movement is going to continue going forward because parents care about their kids more than anybody else. And even though the school’s open, they won’t forget what was happening in those schools.

The best way to truly secure their right to find the best education for their kid is to allow the funding to follow the child to an institution that best aligns with their values. And at the same time, that would provide competitive pressures for the public schools to focus on the basics, as opposed to indoctrination.

It’s not in your best interest as a provider of education services to piss off one set of your customers one way or the other, whether you go too far right or whether you go too far left. It’s in your best interest, as in a competitive marketplace, to focus on the basics, to focus on education, not indoctrination.

Blair: Now, it’s funny that you mentioned that, too, because a lot of parents were starting to pull their children out of those schools and maybe put them into pandemic pods or things of that nature. Since that schools are starting to reopen again, are we seeing that shift stick? Is that transition sticking?

DeAngelis: Yeah. And so, one of the first examples of the shift on education from Democrats toward Republicans, when it comes to confidence among the voters, was the Virginia gubernatorial race.

We had Terry McAuliffe … infamously say, “I don’t think parents should be telling schools what they should teach on the final debate stage.” And that will go down in history as one of the biggest debate gaffes in gubernatorial history, in my opinion.

In a state that went 10 points to [Joe] Biden just a year before, Glenn Youngkin, the Republican, won by 2 percentage points, swinging the public 12 percentage points from the Democrats to the Republicans.

And that election was won on the issue of education. According to Washington Post exit polling, education was the No. 2 issue in that race, which is much higher than it is in usual races. And Glenn Youngkin won with those voters by much larger margins, by about 6 percentage points.

And a lot of people were theorizing that this might not stick, it was just a blip. They just got out of the school closures, parents were upset about that. But the thing is, we just had two polls come out last month, both which fly in the face of this theory, because it’s been a long time since the November elections, the schools have been open for a long time.

And both of these polls were conducted by left-leaning institutions, one being the American Federation of Teachers, Randi Weingarten’s teachers union, which in 2022, 99.997% of AFT’s campaign contributions have gone to Democrats, as opposed to Republicans. And the other poll being commissioned for the Democrats for Education Reform.

Two left-leaning groups both found Republicans up on the issue of education last month, from 1 to 3 percentage points. And you might say, “Well, that’s not a huge amount, it’s only 1 to 3 points.” But one of the polls found that the GOP was up with parents on the issue of education by 9 points.

And this represents a seismic shift in support from Democrats to Republicans on education, because just consider the swing from 2017 Gallup, for example, found that Democrats nationwide were up on the issue of education by about 19 points.

So that’s a, yeah, double-digit swing. It’s a sea change in support from Democrats to Republicans.

So again, Republicans have a golden opportunity to become the parents party, hopefully they don’t mess it up. If they want to give a gift to Democrats, what they would do is keep silent on education because the Democrats don’t want to talk about it, because if they do, they end up with a Terry McAuliffe moment.

And it turns out that it’s deeply unpopular to believe that it takes a village, or that your kids belong to the government, or that parents shouldn’t have a say in the kids’ education. They can’t defend that position, so Republicans should follow the blueprint of Glenn Youngkin.

Glenn Youngkin cracked the code by leaning into parental rights, and not backing down and sticking up for this new, special-interest group that’s not going away anytime soon, which happens to be parents who want more of a say in their kids’ education.

Those parents who are showing up at the school board meetings showed up at the ballot box, too, and they’re going to do so in November.

If the Republicans want a red wave in November, they should lean into parental rights and education, because Democrats in the current environment are in a catch-22 situation, whereas Republicans are in a win-win situation.

Blair: Now, teachers unions do seem to be a very essential part of this conversation. Versus parental rights, there’s the teachers’ “rights.” How has the teachers union kind of effect pushed parents into supporting school choice?

DeAngelis: Well, teachers unions overplayed their hand. They pushed, they lobbied explicitly to the CDC to keep the schools closed. That hurt parents from all different political backgrounds.

And just putting politically divisive topics into the classroom, that has Democrats running to the middle as well, Democratic parents. They just want kids to learn the basics. If the schools aren’t even doing a good job with math, reading, and writing, why do the schools think that they should try to focus on other things that could be even more complicated than math, reading, and writing?

So, that’s turned off a lot of independents in particular and some Democrats, and it’s really irritated Republican parents. So I think that’s one of the problems with the teacher unions, they’ve over politicized the classroom.

And what’s another funny part about Randi Weingarten’s own poll, it was basically an epic self own. Her union pretty much handed herself a massive “L” because the poll also asked, “What is the biggest issue with public education today?” And those voters in likely battleground states in that poll said that overly politicized classrooms were the No. 1 issue with public schools.

And then the same poll also took it a step further and asked, “Who do you think is more responsible for this, the Republicans or the Democrats?” And that poll found that the likely voters in those battleground states were more likely to say that it was Democrats over politicizing the classroom, not the Republicans, by about 5 to 7 percentage points, which is a pretty large margin.

And then here you have it, Randi Weingarten for months, the AFT president, has been tweeting over and over and over again that the Republicans and the conservatives are the ones that are responsible for politics in the classroom. That it’s all Glenn Youngkin’s fault and Gov. DeSantis’ fault for over politicizing the classroom.

Her own poll that she commissioned by her union found her narrative was completely the opposite of the truth, according to the likely voters in the battleground states.

Blair: Oh, it’s completely bunk. I think that’s an interesting point to bring up, too, is that we have all these positives in our direction. If we’re pro-school choice, it seems like we have the winds at our backs, like you said. What are some of the threats, though, that could face the school choice movement as we’re notching all these victories?

DeAngelis: I mean, the teachers unions are going to fight back as hard as they can.

Well, one of the things that they do, they do anything they can, they’ll pull any lever that they can in order to trap low-income kids in failing government schools, which is despicable of them.

But one thing they’ll do is they’ll use the courts, which, by the way, that’s another victory that we’ve had. Just last two months ago in June, the Supreme Court in the Carson v. Makin decision further affirmed parental rights in education, religious liberty, and school choice.

And in the opinion of the court, they also reiterated, which has been precedent for decades, since the Zelman v. Simmons-Harris decision in 2002, that school choice is not a problem with the establishment clause of the U.S. Constitution, which most people on the left will say that, “It’s a separation of church and state issue because you have public taxpayer dollars, which can be used at private religious entities.”

But that’s a total bogus argument, for the same reason that, well, one, the phrase “separation of church and state” is not found in the U.S. Constitution, it’s about the state establishing a religion.

So what they’re talking about is the establishment clause, but there’s no problem with school choice and the establishment clause for the same reason that Pell Grants don’t violate the establishment clause. That’s public taxpayer money, you can use it at a public college, a private college, or a religious or nonreligious university.

And the reason that it isn’t a problem with the establishment clause is because the funding goes to the families and they can choose between religious and nonreligious, public or private providers.

Same thing with Medicaid dollars that can be used at religiously affiliated hospitals. Same thing with the pre-K programs and the federal Head Start program that can be used at religiously affiliated pre-K providers, if you want. That’s no issue with the establishment clause.

So that’s one tactic that they’ll have. And we have a friendly Supreme Court and a lot of precedents suggesting that school choice is safe when it comes to the establishment clause. But then they’ll fight at the state court level as well.

They will do ballot initiative, petition drives to try to, again, trap kids in failing government schools, which hopefully the voters, and from what we’re seeing in the polls, voters support school choice.

And so, I think the teachers unions are going to be a lot less successful at blocking educational freedom now, because again, the wind is at our backs.

The latest polling from RealClear Opinion Research, for example, in 2022, found that 72% of Americans support school choice, which was up about 8 percentage points since April of 2020.

So again, parents have woken up, they’re not taking the BS arguments from the teachers unions anymore. And no matter how much the teachers unions want to scream bloody murder, that think this is going to destroy the public schools, the evidence just doesn’t bear that out.

Twenty-five of 28 studies suggest that private school choice competition leads to better outcomes, not worse, in the public schools. School choice doesn’t destroy public schools, it makes them better. School choice is a rising tide that lifts all boats.

Competition works in education just like it does in any other industry. The evidence is clear.

And look, this should be about the students, not the system. Why are they so focused on the schools? You even have a group, some groups in some states that make it pretty obvious that they’re focusing on protecting an institution as opposed to the rights of parents. We’re on the side of parents, they’re on the side of the buildings.

Blair: I mean, that’s a great way to put it. I guess, as we begin to wrap-up here, my final question is, if you’re an average American who maybe has a student in a failing public school, what are some of the actions you can take that are not forcing you to maybe pay twice? I know a lot of people would have to pay in taxes to have to pay for public schools, but they’re still making a better education choice for their child.

DeAngelis: Yeah. It depends what state you’re in and the options that are available to you. You could look at the Federation for Children, it’s federationforchildren.org. You could look at different school choice options in your state.

But if you have a school choice initiative, for example, if you live in Arizona, with education savings account programs, you could apply for those types of scholarships.

The funding, about $7,000 in Arizona, would follow you to an education savings account, if you don’t like your government school.

Of course, if you like your public school, you can keep your public school. But if not, you get about half of the total funding that would’ve followed you to that school, $7,000, and you could use it for private school tuition and fees, homeschooling curriculum, tutoring, any approved education expenses, micro schools. It’s the most flexible, customizable form of school choice.

You could also homeschool your kids, even if you’re in a state that doesn’t have a formal school choice program that might be cost prohibitive, but it’s worth seeking out.

And a lot of families have already made that switch, even before the school choice programs have been expanded.

According to the U.S. Census Bureau, another overplaying of their hand from the teacher unions is that there’s been a mass exodus from the government school system already. Over 1.3, about 1.3 million students have left government-run schools since the start of the pandemic.

Charter schools have seen an increase by about 7%, which is another option, that is they do not charge tuition. So if most states have charter schools, you could seek those out as well.

And there’s been just massive private school choice expansion, so it’s worth looking into federationforchildren.org to see what’s available in your state.

Blair: I suppose as a follow-up, just to sort of clarify as well, what if you’re from a state like my home state, Oregon, that has been very aggressively anti-school choice and doesn’t seem to be changing course anytime soon?

DeAngelis: Yeah. What’s interesting is Fox News just reported a polling result out of Oregon, reported by Oregon Moms Union. I’ll actually be visiting that state in a couple of months to promote educational freedom.

Blair: I’m so sorry.

DeAngelis: Yeah. But 72% of respondents on their survey suggested that they support school choice. So the winds are shifting even in deep blue states like Oregon.

There’s a couple of different ways that you can try to make it happen. Perhaps the Democrats in the Legislature will listen to parents, but so pressure can help make a change.

And then also, there’s ballot initiatives that could be useful as well. You can go around the state Legislature, take it to the voters on the ballot, and try to make that push. And that could be a push this coming year in Oregon.

But also, look, Oregon should have charter schools, from what I can tell, but it is true that in blue states, you don’t have as much educational freedom as you do in states like Arizona and Florida, for example.

Blair: Well, hopefully some of those changes will come into place. That was Corey DeAngelis, senior fellow at the American Federation for Children, adjunct senior fellow at the Reason Foundation, and executive director at the Educational Freedom Institute. Corey, very much appreciate your time.

DeAngelis: Yeah. Thanks for having me.

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