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School Choice, and Cultural Identity, in GOP Platform

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Party platforms may or may not serve as useful policy blueprints, or reliable political vision statements—a lot of people, including House Speaker John Boehner, have their doubts.

But this year's Republican platform offers a sweeping and sharply worded illustration of party leaders' views of why school choice matters. It's an argument girded in cultural beliefs, as well as educational ones.

On the whole, school choice gets a pretty good amount of ink in the document, which was unveiled this week at the Republican National Convention.

Party leaders present school choice—which they define as including vouchers, charters, virtual education, homeschooling, the availability of career-and-technical education and other options—as more than a strategy for academic improvement and consumer empowerment. They also see it as an important vehicle for ensuring that families—rather than the government—are in control of the values conveyed to their children.
Campaign 2012

"Education is much more than schooling," the platform states. "It is the whole range of activities by which families and communities transmit to a younger generation, not just knowledge and skills, but ethical and behavorial norms and traditions. It is the handing over of a personal and cultural identity. That is why education choice has expanded so vigorously."

"It is also why American education has, for the last several decades, been the focus of constant controversy, as centralizing forces outside the family and community have sought to remake education in order to remake America. They have not succeeded, but they have done immense damage."

The document doesn't identify those centralizing forces seeking to remake America, though it bashes teachers' unions—a frequent target at the GOP convention—and calls for turning more power over school issues to state and local officials, and removing it from those in Washington.

Choice is not merely a critical piece of improving education in the United States, the platform says—it's "the most important driving force for renewing our schools."

Of course, it's worth noting that many Democrats, including President Obama, support school choice in various forms, particularly charter schools. The big divide between the parties comes on the issue of private school choice—vouchers—which Democrats, with some exceptions, have opposed at the state and federal level. Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney has called for a major federal expansion of vouchers, a proposal that was included in the party platform. (See my colleague Alyson Klein's analysis of the entire GOP document.)

The idea that school choice is important on principle, and that families should be allowed to use tax funding to pick private schools or options over regular public schools for any reason, not just academic ones, is nothing new. But the language in the GOP platform mirrors one of the party's central sociocultural messages in 2012—and in past presidential elections—that families suffer when the government consolidates power.

Will that argument resonate with voters? We'll know more in two months' time.

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