Masks are doing for school choice what years of advocacy has not: Increasing Democratic support for parental choice. That’s according to recent polling by Echelon Insights reported in the Wall Street Journal.

The poll of 1,000 registered voters conducted Aug. 13-18 revealed that 76% of Democrats support allowing taxpayer education funding to follow-the-child if their public school did not mandate masks. In total, 79% of respondents supported parental choice related to masking in the poll.

“These numbers represent a marked increase in support among Democrats,” Tommy Schultz, the CEO of the American Federation for Children, said in a press release. “This just affirms that the one-size-fits-all system of education cannot serve the needs and interests of all families. No family should ever feel unsafe sending their children to school, whether due to bullying or health and safety protocols. Elected officials should take note and put children first by empowering families with educational options.”

Both sides of mask debate benefit from school choice

School boards mask policies aren’t only encouraging pro-mandate parents to consider alternatives to public schooling. Parents on the other side of the debate are also fueling a growing movement of educational freedom, at least anecdotally.

In 2020, the Shawnee Mission School District enrollment declined by 1,500 students. Officials anticipated enrollment rebounds this year. However, that isn’t the case. According to the Shawnee Mission Post, this year’s kindergarten class has 200 fewer students than anticipated.

“We just kind of thought there would be a good rebound after the pandemic year.  Kids staying home or being homeschooled and they would return,” the district’s chief finance officer Russell Knapp told Shawnee Mission school board members at a meeting last week.

The Shawnee Mission School District mandates students wear masks in all district facilities.

According to a U.S. Census report, homeschooling rates in Kansas are on the rise. The Census reports that 2.4% of Kansas households homeschooled in 2020. This year, the Census estimates that 10.1% of Kansas households home school.

Households homeschooling increases according to Census

The Spring Hill School District mandates facial coverings but allows parents to opt children out from the policy. 

Board member Ali Seeling warned fellow panelists that the repercussions of mandating masks could lead to the destruction of the public school system. 

“There’s a lot of conversations about vouchers and the money following the kids,” she said. “If you don’t stand up to this now, we should be implicated in the demise of the public school system.”

Traditionally, Republican voters support school choice in broader numbers than Democratic voters. However, the recent poll showing broad Democratic support for school choice comes on the heels of a June RealClear Opinion poll showing that 70% of Democrats strongly or somewhat supported school choice.

“Public support for school choice is at an all-time high,” Schultz said. “And as the nation recovers from unprecedented, nationwide school closures, a new story is unfolding. Parents are rising up and demanding the freedom to choose the best educational environment for their children.”

Choice provides better academic opportunities

Parental choice has traditionally been driven by a desire for better academic opportunities, and that need still exists.

The Kansas Department of Education’s 2019 state assessment shows there are more high school students below grade level than are on track for college and career.  In math, 41% of high school students are below grade level and only 25% are on track.  Johnson County schools are often touted as some of the best in the nation, but their outcomes are also much lower than parents have been led to believe.

Across all districts in Johnson County, 30% of high school students are below grade level and just 37% are on track.  Even in Blue Valley, 21% are below grade level and less than half are on track for college and career.

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