This week is National School Choice Week, which makes it a good time to ponder the state of the school choice coalition. During the Clinton–Bush school reform era, broad swaths of the public—both Republicans and Democrats—supported charter schools and different forms of public school choice. However, private school choice has long been a primarily Republican cause. In recent years, as many red states have passed and expanded private school choice through Education Savings Accounts (ESA), Democrats have generally remained opposed to them. But do all Democrats feel this way? Should they?
That sounds like a discussion worth having, and in February I will host a live debate at AEI that will address that very question.
In the next installment of AEI’s Education Policy Debate Series, we’re bringing together four Democrats to debate the motion: “My fellow Democrats, we should embrace ESAs.” On the Pro side, we’ll have Ravi Gupta, founder of The Branch Media, alongside Marcus Brandon, executive director of CarolinaCAN and two-term state representative in North Carolina. Opposed to the motion are Graig Meyer, current North Carolina state senator, and Bethany Little, former education advisor to President Bill Clinton and Vice President Al Gore and current managing principal at EducationCounsel.
Our debates aren’t mere infotainment, though we do provide a wine and cheese reception for members of the live audience. Instead, they feature unscripted, civil, and pointed arguments that surface crucial tensions and illuminate key distinctions between opposing sides of a hot topic.
And ESAs are indeed a hot topic. Since 2011, 13 states have passed ESA laws, including five in 2023 alone. The details of each state’s law vary, but the gist is that families receive state money with which they can purchase educational services from a single school or from a range of private educational service providers. In some ways similar to health savings accounts, ESAs have been dubbed “the new frontier in school choice.” Supporters of ESAs—typically Republicans—argue that putting education funding into the hands of families empowers them to make better decisions about their children’s education, in private schools or in other educational arrangements. Opponents—often Democrats—contend that ESAs both starve public schools of funds and favor wealthier families who can already afford private school tuition.
Some Democrats, including Gupta and Brandon, buck these conventional positions and say that it’s time for more Democrats to get on board with ESAs. But can they make a convincing argument? Join us in person or online for this debate and help decide if they can. At every debate, we poll the audience before and after to see which side changed the most minds and therefore won the argument.
Whether you’re a Democrat, Republican, or neither, this is sure to be a riveting conversation. Join us on Thursday, Feb. 29, here at AEI to hear Democrats duke it out over the direction of ESAs—and, by extension, school choice—in the US.