Teachers unions, school choice and the Democratic Party’s retreat

On Sept. 17, 1976, the NEA endorsed Jimmy Carter for president – the first presidential endorsement in the organization’s history. With this endorsement, it joined with the other major teachers union, the American Federation of Teachers, to become a dominant force in the Democratic Party.

On Sept. 17, 1976, the NEA endorsed Jimmy Carter for president – the first presidential endorsement in the organization’s history. With this endorsement, it joined with the other major teachers union, the American Federation of Teachers, to become a dominant force in the Democratic Party. Image from the Schell Collection.

This is the latest post in our series of the center-left roots of school choice.

Much of the opposition to private school choice seems to emanate from the Democratic Party, but this wasn’t always the case. Just look at the party platforms.

From the 1964 to 1984, the Democrat Party formally supported the public funding of students in private schools.Voucher Left logo snipped

The 1964 platform stated, “New methods of financial aid must be explored, including the channeling of federally collected revenues to all levels of education, and, to the extent permitted by the Constitution, to all schools.” The 1972 platform supported allocating “financial aid by a Constitutional formula to children in non-public schools.” The 1976 platform endorsed “parental freedom in choosing the best education for their children,” and “the equitable participation in federal programs of all low- and moderate-income pupils attending all the nation’s schools.”

Thanks to the influence of U.S. Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan, a New York Democrat and devout Catholic, the party’s 1980 platform stated “private schools, particularly parochial schools,” are an important part of our country’s educational system. It committed the party to supporting “a constitutionally acceptable method of providing tax aid for the education of all pupils.” In 1984, the platform again endorsed public funding for “private schools, particularly parochial schools.”

Then the shift began. The 1988 platform was silent on the issue, and by 1992 the Democrats had formally reversed position, stating, “We oppose the Bush Administration’s efforts to bankrupt the public school system — the bedrock of democracy — through private school vouchers.”

The party’s current position on school choice was formalized in 1996. That year’s platform endorsed the expansion of public school choice, including charter schools. But it also reiterated “we should not take American tax dollars from public schools and give them to private schools.”

The Democratic Party’s shift from supporting to opposing public funding for low-income and working-class students in private schools can be traced back to an event that also helped spur the growth of modern teachers unions: The 1968 teachers strike in New York City.

This strike pitted the low-income black community of Ocean Hill-Brownsville in Brooklyn against the primarily white New York City teachers union. The issue was whether local public schools would be controlled by the Ocean Hill-Brownsville community or by a city-wide bureaucracy.  The union vehemently opposed decentralization since its business model was built around a one-size-fits-all collective bargaining agreement with centralized management.

The strike lasted from May to November 1968. Given school districts are usually the largest employer in most communities, union power quickly grew.

Since its founding in 1857, the National Education Association had long seen itself as a professional association and not a union. But the spread of industrial unionism in school districts across the country forced the NEA in the 1970s to begin transforming itself into an industrial-style union.

On Sept. 17, 1976, the NEA endorsed Jimmy Carter for president – the first presidential endorsement in the organization’s history. With this endorsement, it joined with the other major teachers union, the American Federation of Teachers, to become a dominant force in the Democratic Party. In exchange, former NEA president Richard Batchelder told me the NEA asked Carter to create a federal Department of Education, and to reverse the Democratic Party’s support of public funding for low-income and working-class students in private schools, among other things.

Changing this policy was complicated by the strong support of Sen. Moynihan and the Catholic Church.  But in the 1970s the power of the rapidly growing teachers unions was beginning to eclipse the influence of Catholics within the Democratic Party.

In 1977, Moynihan proposed a tuition tax credit for families with children in private and parochial schools, and he recruited 26 Republicans and 24 Democrats to co-sponsor the bill. But the Carter Administration worked with the teachers unions to successfully kill it.

A more recent version of this Catholics-versus-teachers-unions battle has been playing out in New York.  Gov. Andrew Cuomo has formed an alliance with the Archbishop of New York, Cardinal Timothy Dolan, to advocate for a tax credit scholarship program to help low-income and working-class families. But the teachers union has had enough clout with Democrats in the State Assembly to twice defeat it.

Now, communities of color are becoming an increasingly important part of the Democratic Party coalition.  How long teachers unions can set the party’s education agenda in the face of growing influence from blacks and Hispanics who tend to favor educational choice is an intriguing question. Publicly-supported private school choice programs are expanding across the country, as are charter schools, which teachers unions also see as a threat to their business model. Eventually, wiser heads within the Democratic Party will want to address this rift.

In Florida, where more than 100,000 disadvantaged students are participating in private school choice programs, Democrats who oppose these programs have struggled to win statewide elections.

In the 1980s, I saw the NEA reverse its opposition to magnet schools and other forms of within-district school choice once a critical mass of teachers in these programs joined the union. I suspect the same thing will happen with private school choice once teachers unions expand their business models to include private-school employees.

Until that happens, their opposition to equal educational opportunity will remain at odds with the Democratic Party’s other core constituencies.

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