Education & Academia

School Choice: The Democrats’ Dilemma

President Nixon opened China, President Clinton delivered welfare reform, and it may take a Democratic presidential candidate to buck that party’s history and pave the way for widespread parental choice in education. But if parents are hoping for such a conversion during the 2008 presidential campaign, they shouldn’t get their hopes up.

The leading Democratic candidates recently made a pilgrimage to the National Education Association’s annual convention, where each delivered remarks geared to win favor with the powerful union and its 3.2 million members.

All of the candidates stayed on script, highlighting their commitment to public education and strong opposition to school choice. Former Senator John Edwards told the teachers that “your agenda is basically my agenda” and “we should not drain money away from public schools through vouchers.” Not to be outdone, New Mexico Governor Bill Richardson proclaimed his strong opposition to school choice: “Let me tell you right now, vouchers are not the answer! I’ve never supported vouchers and I will not support vouchers in the future!”

Some had hoped that Illinois Senator Barak Obama might embrace school vouchers as part of his sometimes centrist-leaning campaign. Last year, he cosponsored legislation with Senator Jim DeMint to give disadvantaged high school students scholarships for post-secondary education, a modest form of school choice. But hopes that Senator Obama would go further were doused at the NEA convention when he told the delegates he was “committed to fixing our public schools instead of abandoning them and passing out vouchers.”

And no one was surprised by the comments from Senator Hillary Clinton, long a critic of school choice. Last year, she argued that school vouchers would lead to some children attending “the school of the White Supremacist” or the “school of the Jihad.” This year, she promised the NEA delegates that she would fight vouchers “with every breath in my body.”

On other issues – like higher education, housing subsidies, and food stamps – Democrats support and push for increased funding for vouchers that deliver public subsidies directly to the individual, but when it comes to K-12 education, vouchers are usually off limits.

One reason is the party’s relationship with powerful special interest groups like the National Education Association, whose members are among its most loyal contributors and volunteers. Congressional Quarterly reports that 93 percent of the NEA’s PAC contributions have gone to Democrats since 1980.

But a new organization, Democrats for Education Reform (DFER), was recently launched in hopes of transforming the party’s hostility to reforms like school choice. The group’s founders include a former D.C. city council member who supported school vouchers and a former Teach for America employee. “There are millions of kids out there who are being failed by the system, and our party is looking the other way,” explained one of the founders to Philanthropy Magazine. “It’s morally bankrupt and politically suicidal, and you can quote me on that.”

The group has avoided taking a position on school vouchers, but its Executive Director, Joe Williams, has previously written about of the need for greater parental empowerment, highlighting the success of Milwaukee’s school voucher program in his book Cheating Our Kids: How Politics and Greed Ruin Education.

DFER is currently focusing on specific reform initiatives in New Jersey and New York, and success is not out of the question. Unlike their party’s presidential contenders, Democrats at the state and local level are embracing school choice in increasing numbers.

But the group hopes to influence the national debate in the future. If it succeeds in persuading more Democrats to reject the teachers unions’ anti-school choice orthodoxy, parental choice initiatives could proliferate across the country.

One day, Americans might even see a leading Democrat presidential candidate champion the need for widespread school choice to give all families the opportunity to choose a quality school for their children. Unfortunately, it doesn’t look like 2008 will be the year.

Sign Up