Republican Convention 2020

The First Night of the RNC Offered a Full-Throated Defense of School Choice

Republicans have turned away from freedom in many ways during the Trump era, but at least they've embraced school choice at the national level.


Monday's opening night of the Republican National Convention provided a whirlwind tour of what the Trumpified GOP opposes: socialism, globalism, and anyone who might suggest that the president's response to the COVID-19 pandemic was anything other than stellar.

You have to look a little harder to find out what policies the Republican Party supports these days—and the RNC made it harder still by refusing, in the days before the convention opened, to publish an actual platform. But if the first day of the convention is any indication, school choice is going to get heavy rotation during the rest of the campaign.

It was telling that the Republicans chose to kick-off their convention with remarks from Rebecca Friedrich, the California public school teacher who became the lead plaintiff in a lawsuit that challenged teachers unions' authority to compel the payment of dues from teachers who disagree with a union's politics. Union-backed efforts aimed at stopping charter schools and school choice, she said on Monday, are responsible for "trapping so many precious, low-income children in dangerous, corrupt, and low-performing schools."

By contrast, Friedrichs said, Trump wants to give parents greater choice over where their children are educated.

It's true that "ensuring school choice for all children" is a part of Trump's second term agenda, a wishlist that the GOP is promoting this week in lieu of an actual platform. The document is devoid of any specific policy ideas. Since schools are mostly run by state and local authorities, there is probably limited potential for Trump to single-handedly implement school choice—which is itself a catch-all term for a wide range of ideas and not a singular policy to be switched on or off—at the national level.

Still, it's welcome to see Republicans embracing educational choice at the party's convention. If nothing else, what gets said at the RNC can provide a signal to the state and local officials who will be setting policy in the years to come.

And there was plenty of talk about the importance of school choice on Monday. The president's son, Donald Trump Jr., hit the theme as well.

Sen. Tim Scott (R–S.C.), in one of the better speeches of the convention's first night, outlined a powerful argument for why parents should have a greater say in their children's education.

"I don't care if it's a public, private, charter, virtual, or a home school," Scott said. "When a parent has a choice, a kid has a better chance."

The GOP's embrace of school choice feels a little bit incongruous considering the party's turn away from freedom on so many other issues—from immigration to trade—and the Trump administration's general lack of concrete policy goals. So much of Monday's programming was dedicated to titillating Trump's base of supporters that Scott's argument about educational choice as an opportunity for all families to achieve the American dream may have been lost in the noise.

But with many traditional public schools remaining closed in response to COVID-19 and working families forced to consider alternative arrangements, now is a great time to talk about school choice. For anyone disheartened by the Republican Party's turn away from its traditional appeals for smaller government and greater individual responsibility, tonight's RNC suggests maybe that light has not fully gone out.