How the Democratic Party historically defined equal opportunity in education

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Columbia University education professor Amy Stuart Wells is troubled by the spread of bipartisanship in education reform. “President Obama’s signature Race to the Top program, which promotes charter schools, state tests, and tough-love accountability for educators, might just as well have been proposed by a Republican president,” she writes in Education Week.

True. But professor Wells has a short memory of what she considers the “traditional goals” of the Democratic Party. Far from subverting the party’s ideals, as she claims, today’s proposals for education reform echo the proposals for school choice and equal opportunity that Democrats advanced more than 40 years ago.

Both Hubert Humphrey in 1968 and George McGovern in 1972 proposed tuition tax credits for elementary and secondary school students in their respective Democratic presidential platforms. Also, in 1978, McGovern joined 23 other Democratic senators in co-sponsoring legislation introduced by Democratic Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan that would have awarded up to $500 in tax credits to families paying private or parochial school tuition.

President Jimmy Carter, Moynihan noted in a 1978 Harper’s magazine article, also was “firmly committed to finding constitutionally acceptable methods of providing aid to parents whose children attend parochial schools.” But that call came before the National Education Association decided, for the first time, to endorse a candidate for President of the United States. After Carter won the presidency, and the NEA’s endorsement, he reversed course and promised to kill Moynihan’s bill.

What followed was decades of confusion of how the Democratic Party historically defined equal opportunity in education. To be sure, Moynihan fought off charges from members in his party that a dollar spent in tuition tax credits was a dollar lost to public schools. But at the time, the platforms of each party didn’t read too differently on education policy, as Moynihan observed in the same Harper’s essay.

The Republican Party stated:

We favor consideration of tax credits for parents making elementary and secondary school tuition payments … Diversity in education has great value … Public schools and nonpublic schools should share an education fund on a constitutionally acceptable basis.

The Democratic Party (in a plank that Moynihan acknowledges he wrote) stated:

[a] commitment to the support of a constitutionally acceptable method of providing tax aid for the education of all pupils in nonsegregated schools in order to insure parental freedom in choosing the best education for their children. Specifically, the party will continue to advocate constitutionally permissible federal education legislation which provides for the equitable participation in federal programs of all low- and moderate-income pupils attending the nation’s schools.

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