Betsy DeVos, Jimmy Carter and Democratic retreats on school choice

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

Jimmy Carter once touted school vouchers, telling readers of Today’s Catholic Teacher in 1976: “While I was Governor of Georgia, voters authorized annual grants for students attending private colleges in Georgia. We must develop similar, innovative programs elsewhere for non-public elementary and secondary schools if we are to maintain a healthy diversity of educational opportunity for all our children.” (Image from Wikimedia Commons)

The confirmation fight over new U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos has at least temporarily pulled Congressional Democrats from the growing bipartisan consensus on school choice. But this political showdown, and the extent to which it was animated by the teacher unions, is not new.

We can probably trace its beginnings to Jimmy Carter. It was during Carter’s presidency that intraparty politics began to pry the Democratic Party from its embrace of school choice. A couple of letters from Carter to Catholic educators, four years apart, captures the shift.

In September 1976, then-candidate Carter wrote to Today’s Catholic Teacher. (Go to page 11 here.) He praised Catholic schools; referred to the “right” of low- and middle-income Americans “to choose a religious education for their children;” and argued for school choice in terms of opportunity and diversity, as pro-choice progressives had long done. He said he was committed to finding “constitutionally acceptable” ways to provide financial assistance to parents whose children attend private schools. And, as a kicker, he gave a thumbs up to vouchers:

“While I was Governor of Georgia, voters authorized annual grants for students attending private colleges in Georgia. We must develop similar, innovative programs elsewhere for non-public elementary and secondary schools if we are to maintain a healthy diversity of educational opportunity for all our children.”

Carter’s pro-choice, pro-voucher position is fascinating for all kinds of reasons. Today’s left has no clue about its own past support for school choice. And as the Carter letter shows, choice wasn’t some fringe phenomenon on that end of the spectrum.

It’s also fascinating because Carter changed his tune at the end of his term, a turnabout that generally marked the beginning of the left’s resistance to choice (at least the white left) and a shrinking of that common ground we’re seeing again, post-Trump. As Doug Tuthill has written, that late ‘70s flip-flop has everything to do with the rise of the teachers union as a force within the Democratic Party, and little to do with progressive values.

The key point on the timeline is 1976, when the National Education Association (NEA) endorsed a presidential candidate for the first time. That would be Carter.

Four years later, his administration scrambled to write a follow-up to Today’s Catholic Teacher. Republican nominee Ronald Reagan had written a first-person letter to the magazine, and the magazine let Carter’s people know their initial response – a statement from the administration – paled in comparison. “HURRY HURRY HURRY,” one of Carter’s media liaisons urged the PR team in a memo: “This message conceivably could be in every Catholic publication in every Catholic school.”

The team shifted into high gear. But the resulting letter surely didn’t fire up undecided Catholics.

It gave Catholic schools credit for playing a “significant role” in educating “millions of low and middle income Americans.” But instead of a continuing commitment to find constitutionally acceptable ways to provide aid to private school parents – which Carter promised in 1976 – the president would only commit to supporting constitutionally appropriate steps to get Catholic schools “their equitable share of funds provided under our federal education programs.” Clearly, a far lesser goal.

Documents in the Carter Presidential Library show what was scrubbed during editing. David Rubenstein, then one of Carter’s domestic policy advisers, nixed language that said Carter reported the administration’s efforts to help private schools to the Democratic Party platform committee. He also scratched out Carter’s support for platform language that backed tax aid for private school education. “Definitely NO,” he wrote next to the strike-through. “I don’t see any advantage to getting into the Platform,” he commented in another memo.

Also removed was a description of parochial schools that said “in many areas, they provide the best education available.” And wording that said without such schools, millions of Americans “would have been denied the opportunity for a solid education.”

Caught between the Reagan Revolution and teachers unions, Democratic support for school choice faded for a decade. It began to pulse again in the 1990s, with the advent of charter schools. Then it slowly branched into other choice realms, nudged by advocacy groups that worked tirelessly to build bipartisan and nonpartisan bridges, and welcomed by Democratic constituencies who liked having options.

That middle ground has been steadily growing, and Florida is a prime example. A few months ago, the Sunshine State elected two pro-school choice Democrats to Congress. A year ago, the state Legislature expanded America’s biggest education savings account program with universal bipartisan support. For the past two and a half years, a remarkably diverse coalition battled legal efforts to kill the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship, which now serves nearly 100,000 kids. Three weeks ago, it won.

Masses of energized parents, most of them black and Hispanic, helped fuel that legal victory. That force wasn’t in place when Jimmy Carter followed the path of least resistance. But it’s here now, and Democrats can only ignore it for so long.