School choice has gained popularity as a political issue since the COVID-19 pandemic began, and the Alabama Legislature is expected to take it up again next session

But one of the arguments against it, even from conservatives, is whether expanding school choice would have the desired effect of reducing the spread of radical leftist ideas, or “wokeism,” better than direct political actions, such as banning Critical Race Theory. Some have even argued that school choice could make wokeism worse if the regulating body overseeing the expansion is itself driven by that ideology.

A recent study by The Heritage Foundation endeavored to settle this question: “Does giving parents greater control over choosing their children’s schools actually reduce how woke those chosen schools tend to be?”

The study examined charter schools across the country in more “stringently regulated markets” where schools are more subject to the whims of government authorities compared to charter school markets with less regulation.

“We observed that schools in states with more government regulation and oversight are more woke, and that this is true even after controlling for the partisan leanings of states as proxied by voting margins in the last presidential election,” the study stated. “In other words, elite preferences are more woke than parental preferences, an observation that highlights the need for empowering parents through the expansion of school choice while maintaining vigilance against regulatory capture.”

One of those states examined was Alabama, which received one of the worst woke scores among the schools surveyed — worse than California and New York. 

The study devised its own wokeness measurement by searching publicly available student handbooks of the 20 largest charter schools in each state for certain keywords, such as “gender identity,” “justice” and “equity.” 

Alabama received an average score of around 31 for regulatory freedom and a relatively high wokeness score of 25, which is the average number of times the woke terms appeared in the student handbooks surveyed. 

BG school choice reduces wokeism chart 1 Alabama News

The study gave Legacy Prep School in Birmingham as an example of why the state ranked high on the charter school woke graph.

“The student handbook of a school in Alabama states that ‘Restorative Practices play a key role in establishing common language and strategies that aid in the growth of our students’ social-emotional core competencies.’ Staff will employ ‘natural and logical’ consequences to ‘redirect’ misbehavior. ‘As part of that, maintaining all students’ dignity rather than shaming or blaming them is central to a restorative approach to discipline.’”

The Center of Education Reform, which the study used in its calculations, gave Alabama an overall “parent power index” score of “C,” or 68%. 

“A muddled process undermines growth and the need for a plentiful amount of great charters,” the Center’s website stated. “Still, Alabama’s score rose from a D to C because of a cap on the number of charter schools expiring.”

The Heritage Foundation said it hoped the findings of its study would “spur reform” in conservative states like Alabama and others where leftist ideas could fly under the radar, and encourage expanding school choice in favor of parental empowerment.

“Our findings indicate that conservative choice skeptics are right to raise alarm about the prospect of regulatory capture over expanded school choice programs. However, they are mistaken in fearing that empowering parents will fail to reduce wokeism," the study concluded. "When regulations are held in check, as many states have managed to do with their charter sectors, there is a significant reduction in how woke schools tend to be. Conservatives would do well to be vigilant of capture rather than resigning themselves to defeat. Parental empowerment represents a viable path toward fighting back against woke encroachment in K–12 schools. Controlling wokeness can be achieved by ensuring that schools are more accountable to parents than to regulators.”

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