Home » School Choice

Eric Cantor Seeing Red on School Choice

By Charles Barone, Policy Director and Mac LeBuhn, Policy Analyst

Is anyone going to call b.s. on the comments that House Majority Leader Eric Cantor made yesterday at a forum on school choice at the Brookings Institution?

Cantor called out newly elected Mayor Bill DeBlasio as a threat to charters in New York City and lambasted President Obama for not doing more to expand D.C.’s school voucher program. Cantor even threatened to break Republican orthodoxy on local control of education and hold hearings on whether new charter policies DeBlasio is pondering violate federal law.

Listen, Eric Cantor scheduled 47 different votes to repeal the Affordable Care Act—if he says he’s interested in changing a policy, he’s definitely going to try. (Succeed is another story.) But are Democrats like Obama and De Blasio the threat to school choice that Cantor makes them out to be?

We’re not minimizing the potential threat that DeBlasio poses to charter schools in New York City. It’s worrisome to see that under the name of progressivism, DeBlasio may pursue education policies driven more by the desire to score symbolic victories that will be cheered by the teachers’ unions rather than policies aimed to improve the education of the kids he professes to care most about.

Yet, for those attending Cantor’s speech yesterday who are unfamiliar with education policy, it would seem that the only people getting in the way of expanding school choice have a D after their names. This partisan version of events leaves out a lot—and a quick look at Congressional activity shows why.

The federal government’s major investment in charter schools is the Charter School Program. Under sequestration, the disastrous budget intervention House Republicans defended for months, it stood to lose over $20 million in funding. For such an advocate for school choice, Cantor was curiously quiet about this.

Race to the Top provides another avenue for federal dollars to support the expansion of choice. High-performing charter networks like KIPP and Idea Public Schools received tens of millions through the program—surely Cantor supported this investment in growing school choice options.

Get ready for a surprise. The House Republican’s proposed reauthorization of the ESEA would gut Race to the Top and other programs that direct federal dollars to the very high-performing choice providers that Cantor otherwise praises. Rather, Cantor would “prioritize state decision-making.”

This is a particularly rich stance for him to take. Eric Cantor currently represents Virginia in the House of Representatives and spent nearly a decade in the state legislature before that. Readers might be surprised to learn that his home state has some of the most restrictive school choice policies in the nation, with a whopping four charter schools in the whole state.

In an analysis that the Brookings Institution released in conjunction with Cantor’s speech (and that Cantor appears not to have read), one Virginia district earned a C, two earned D’s, and three earned F’s on their school choice policies. If Eric Cantor wants to hold hearings on defending school choice, he might want to start with his home state.

In fact, districts in Democratic states (measured by the presence of a Democratic governor) fared far better on the Brookings choice index than did those Republican states. Far more Republican states had districts rated with Cs, Ds and Fs than did Democratic states. And half as many got B's Consider the graph below, which uses the data from the Brookings report. What's more, the graph doesn’t even tell the whole story. Several red states (hello Mississippi) do not even have districts with school choice policies that Brookings considers worth rating.

All of this flies in the face of conventional wisdom about Democrats wanting to trap kids in failing schools and Republicans wanting to emancipate them to attend schools of their parents’ choice. But chewing the cud of conventional wisdom is not going to get us anything other than more back-end methane emissions from the likes of Eric Cantor. If Cantor wants a genuine discussion on the issue of school choice, Democrats should consider themselves more than up to the challenge.

Charles Barone has more than 25 years of experience in education service, research, policy, and advocacy. Prior to joining Democrats for Education Reform (DFER) full-time in January of 2009, Barone worked for five years as an independent consultant on education policy and advocacy. His clients, in addition to DFER, included the Citizens' Commission on Civil Rights, the Education Trust, The Education Sector, and the National Academy of Sciences. Read more here.

Mac LeBuhn is a policy analyst at Democrats for Education Reform (DFER). Before joining DFER, Mac was a fourth grade teacher at Rocketship Si Se Puede, a charter school in San Jose, CA. He became interested in education policy through internships at the offices of Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions, and Colorado State Senator Mike Johnston. Read more about Mac here.