There’s no doubt many Democrats reflexively give vouchers and charter schools short shrift because of how successfully those school choice options have been branded right-wing. Never mind that school choice has deep roots on the left; that progressive icons like Daniel Patrick Moynihan and Hubert Humphrey embraced tuition tax credits for private schools; that Democratic Presidents Clinton and Obama champion charters. Repeat something long enough and loud enough, and between political tribes and echo chambers, alternate reality begins to wall off the real thing.
Which makes what’s happening in education right now that much more encouraging.
Despite the set-in-stone narrative, more and more Democrats in search of real-world solutions are finding ways around the wall. Since we launched our blog 2½ years ago, we’ve noted many of them. But a good bit of anecdotal evidence suggests the pace of Democratic support is growing. In New Jersey, in the midst of a Democratic primary for U.S. Senate, Newark Mayor Cory Booker didn’t soft pedal when asked about his support for vouchers. In New York, mayoral candidate Anthony Weiner has made expanding school choice the centerpiece of his education platform.
These guys aren’t DINOs. Booker, already touted as a future presidential candidate, once lived on a food-stamp budget to raise awareness about Americans who rely on them. Weiner, before a sexting scandal ended his stint as a U.S. Congressman, was the founder of the Middle Class Caucus and a bomb-throwing lefty darling; he once said during the Obamacare debate that every Republican he’d ever met was “a wholly owned subsidiary of the insurance industry.” To cite the positions of these pols isn’t to endorse them, but to suggest only critics from a detached fringe would consider them corporatistas in Dem drag.
Increasingly, Democrats are seeing school choice for what it really is – not an ideological weapon to be feared, but a practical tool to be honed. We’ve spotlighted other examples on our blog in recent weeks.
Last week, we posted comments from Jeri Muoio, the mayor of West Palm Beach, Fla. Liberal mayor. Liberal city. Yet she and the city commission are now working to start a city-run charter school. The reason: Poor reading scores that spell big trouble for the future of any community. “I guess it really comes down to we have kids in our city who are really underserved,” she said. “The expectations are low and they shouldn’t be.”
Mayor Muoio’s views are all the more striking given red-hot hostility to charters from some quarters in Florida. Last spring, critics of a so-called parent trigger bill – which included the possibility of a charter conversion – got a lot of ink by insisting it was a Trojan Horse for privatization, not a sincere bid to help low-income families. Reporters never asked critics to explain how this on-the-DL business model could actually generate stacks of cash, or why so many big-city Democratic mayors back the concept. It’s clear that for growing numbers of Democrats like Muoio, the motivation to consider alternatives to district schools has nothing to do with anybody’s profits.
Rhode Island state Rep. Eileen Coderre is another one. A salt-of-the-earth Democrat from the working-class city of Pawtucket, Coderre is a member of her party’s leadership team. She’s for same-sex marriage, hiking the minimum wage, increasing penalties for animal abusers. And yes, vouchers. This spring, she turned to the steadfast pro-voucher Friedman Foundation for help in crafting a voucher bill. It didn’t pass, but Coderre is confident she’ll have other Dems on board when she tries again next year. In an interview with our blog, she shrugged when asked about perceptions of partisanship. It’s about expanding opportunities for kids, she said. “I didn’t think that had an R or a D label.”
Gutsy Democrats like Muoio and Coderre aren’t household names beyond the communities they represent. But they exemplify the maturation of the Democratic Party on an issue where there is not only real hope of bipartisanship, but real signs it’s happening. The more that clear-eyed Democrats can get past the myths, the more that all of us can better consider the bigger, tougher questions about expanded school choice that aren’t a figment of partisan imaginations. How to re-shape ed funding. How to best gauge performance. How to find the right balance between parental choice and government regs.
It’ll be good to have thoughtful Democrats at the table as these issues continue to come to the fore. In the meantime, it’s good to see more and more of them living up to their party’s better impulses.