The school choice movement, long seen as synonymous with the GOP, is taking on a new look as inner-city Democrats increasingly embrace the issue — and some rural Republicans balk, holding up the movement’s momentum in several states.
While not uniform, the shifting roles are shaking up traditional alliances throughout the country, analysts and leading advocates say.
More Democrats are coming around on the issue because of the limited resources city public school systems often have for children, said Kevin Chavous, a former D.C. Council member and mayoral candidate.
“I hear a lot of urban Democrats, particularly African-American Democrats, say, ‘Look, we’ve got to do something more,’” said Mr. Chavous, who now works with the educational choice advocacy group American Federation for Children.
The Alliance for School Choice reported that more than 300,000 students nationwide were enrolled in publicly funded private school programs in the 2013-2014 year. That was up from about 246,000 the previous year and represented the largest single-year enrollment growth for such programs. The alliance projects 360,000 students this school year.
State-level programs to provide tax credits or scholarships that allow children in low-income families to attend higher-performing public or private schools have expanded rapidly in states such as Indiana and Florida at the behest of Republican governors.
In Louisiana, Republican Gov. Bobby Jindal has pushed for choice and has found himself standing alongside erstwhile opponents.
Former state Sen. Ann Duplessis, head of the Louisiana Federation for Children, helped kill an early voucher bill that came before the Legislature nearly a decade ago.
But Ms. Duplessis, whose district included part of New Orleans, thinks the tide has shifted since Hurricane Katrina.
“I believe we are at a point now where the traditional, say, African-American Democrat, they get it — we get it now,” she said. “We get it. The goal here is just to ensure that as we innovate, that we can try to get as many of the kids who are being impacted — that we’re trying not to leave anybody behind.”
Even the Obama administration, though it vigorously opposed the expansion of the District’s school voucher program and fought Mr. Jindal’s initiatives, has been open to expanding certain charter school programs — to the consternation of some Democrats and teachers unions.
Democrats have long opposed the philosophy of such programs. They argue that taxpayer money should be directed toward improving public school systems rather than toward programs that allow children to attend private schools or better-rated public schools.
Republicans frequently tout school choice programs as free market solutions that allow students in underperforming schools to enroll in better ones and avoid the influence teachers unions have on public school systems.
But resistance to school choice from rural lawmakers shows that the split is not necessarily along party lines anymore, said Michael McShane, a research fellow in education policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute.
“In many cases today, rural school superintendents are increasingly politically powerful because they tend to be the largest employers in many of these communities,” he said. “There are lots of cases where Republicans voted against school vouchers, voted against school choice programs.”
In Texas, for example, Republican lawmakers last year helped stymie legislation that would provide vouchers for children to get out of underperforming schools and empower parents to demand reforms to those schools.
That opposition has led to some intraparty jostling in the Lone Star State. State Sen. Dan Patrick, a Republican running for lieutenant governor, has put school choice expansion at the forefront of his campaign, and Texas Republicans inserted school choice language into the party’s platform this year in hopes of spurring legislators to act.
Mr. Chavous said he has approached Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell and Sen. Rand Paul, both Kentucky Republicans, about ways to overcome opposition to public charter schools within their state’s GOP.
“It’s a Republican state, but it’s the rural Republicans who have killed it,” Mr. Chavous said.
Kentucky was one of the eight states that did not have public charter school laws for the 2013-2014 school year. The others are Montana, North Dakota, South Dakota, Nebraska, Alabama, West Virginia and New Hampshire.
At the national level, school choice remains a popular issue among Republicans.
Mr. Paul and Mr. Jindal, both mentioned as possible presidential contenders in 2016, tout school choice as one way for Republicans to tap into the minority vote, particularly in inner cities.
Overall, Democrats are still more likely to be opposed to school choice programs, particularly voucher-type systems, Mr. McShane said.
“Generally speaking, it is a relatively small number of Democrats that support school vouchers,” Mr. McShane said. “They are definitely much more the exception than the rule.”
Mr. Chavous said the momentum lies with the new alliances in favor of the programs.
“Everywhere we have these programs, there’s really the demand to grow them,” he said. “It is a movement that is not going anywhere. It’s going to continue to grow.”