archivED: Both Democrats and Republicans have switched on education choice

Doug Tuthill

For a variety of reasons, neither political party expressed much interest in public funding for private schools until the 1960s and 70s.

Editor’s note: Each Saturday in October, redefinED is reviving a post from our archives that speaks to the rich and sometimes surprising history of education choice in the United States. Today’s post, which first appeared in October 2012, reflects upon the complex and often conflicting political, economic and social forces that have caused both Republicans and Democrats to struggle with the issue of public funding for private education choice.

Long-time Democratic education activist Jack Jennings, in a recent Huffington Post column, argued that Republican support for private school choice is a somewhat recent (i.e., the last 45 years) phenomenon, driven by a political desire to appeal to segregationists and weaken teacher unions.  Jennings writes, “The Republicans’ talk about giving parents the right to choose is a politically expedient strategy …  Just beneath the surface of the education rhetoric are political motivations to thwart integration, weaken the Democratic coalition, and cripple the teachers’ unions.”

Jennings is being disingenuous by not acknowledging that Democrats have also changed their position on public funding for private school choice over the years. Democrats George McGovern and Hubert Humphrey both ran for president on platforms supporting tuition tax credits for private schools, and Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan, D-N.Y., was the U.S. Senate’s leading advocate for giving parents public funding to attend private schools. The Democratic Party reversed its support of public funding for private school choice in the late 1970s – as a political payback to the National Education Association for giving Jimmy Carter its first ever presidential endorsement.

Jennings’ assertion that Republican support for publicly-funded private school choice didn’t exist prior to the 1960s would be news to the founders of the Republican Party, most notably William Henry Seward. Seward (pictured here) helped create the Republican Party and was one of Abraham Lincoln’s primary rivals for the Republican presidential nomination in 1860. After losing, Seward served as Lincoln’s Secretary of State during the Civil War.

Prior to seeking the presidency, Seward was elected governor of New York in 1838 as a member of the Whig Party. According to Doris Kearns Goodwin’s book, Team of Rivals, in his 1839 New Year’s Day inaugural address, Seward attempted to broaden his party’s political base by reaching out to “the Irish and German Catholic immigrants who formed the backbone of the state Democratic Party” (p. 82). As part of what Goodwin describes as Seward’s “progressive policies on education and immigration,” Seward “proposed to reform the school system, where the virulently anti-Catholic curriculum frightened immigrants away, dooming vast numbers to illiteracy, poverty, and vice. To get these children off the streets and provide them with opportunities to advance, Seward hoped to divert some part of the public school funds to support parochial schools where children could receive instruction from members of their own faith” (p. 83).

Seward’s attempts to give Catholic children access to more appropriate learning options drew a sharp rebuke from anti-Catholic Protestants. They accused him of tearing down the wall between church and state. At this time in U.S. history, the word “church” in the phrase separation of church and state meant the Catholic Church.

An eclectic array of political forces came together to found the Republican Party, including anti-slavery Whigs, Democrats, newly arrived immigrants and Know Nothings. The Know Nothings were an anti-immigrant party that did well in Massachusetts state elections in 1850 and helped pass the nation’s first mandatory school attend law in 1852. It was designed to push Catholic students into Protestant public schools, where they were required to read the Protestant King James Bible. While the immigrants within the new Republican Party were supportive of Seward’s position, the Know Nothings and other native Protestants were adamantly opposed, so a political stalemate ensued until the last year of Ulysses S. Grant’s presidency.

In 1875, President Grant, a Republican, decided to use the rapid expansion of Catholic immigration and Catholic schools as a political issue to help his preferred successor, James Blaine of Maine, win the 1876 presidential election. Catholic immigrants in urban areas had become a core constituency of the Democratic Party. Catholic schools were expanding rapidly and, in many states, receiving public funds to educate the poor.  Sensing a political opportunity, Grant proposed an amendment to the U.S. Constitution outlawing public funding for religious schools, knowing this would strengthen Protestant support for the Republican Party and Blaine’s candidacy. This amendment failed to pass the Senate and Blaine’s candidacy got derailed by an alleged bribery scandal. But eventually, 33 states did add similar amendments to their state constitutions, which today are known as Blaine Amendments.

Widespread anti-Catholic hostility continued well into the 20th Century and didn’t end politically until John F. Kennedy’s presidential election in 1960. Consequently, both political parties expressed little interest in public funding for private schools until the 1960s and 70s. Jennings claims Republicans changed their position to help whites avoid attending integrated schools, and this certainly explains why some Republicans embraced school choice in the 1960s. But many Democrats also did so at this time for the same reason.  In the 1960s, opposition to school integration at the local and state levels was bi-partisan.

Strangely, Jennings ignores the influence Milton Friedman had on the Republican Party’s current position on school choice. Friedman won a Nobel Prize in economics, was an advisor to President Reagan and is widely regarded as one of the most influential economist in the 20th Century.  He spent more than 50 years promoting free markets in public education, and introduced the concept of vouchers into public education.  Few Republicans would disagree that Friedman’s work is the intellectual basis of the party’s current position on public funding for private school choice.

Conflicting political, economic and social forces have caused both political parties to struggle with the issue of public funding for private school choice over the last 150 years. To suggest otherwise is a misread of history.

 Writer’s Note:  The Team of Rivals quotations come from the 2006 Simon & Schuster paperback version.


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