Personal stories are used by politicians to try to get their ideas to resonate with the public. Sometimes, they use anecdotes that opponents say make the opposite case. A recent speech from a particularly high-profile and controversial Democratic member of Congress allows us to explore this tension in education debates.
On Saturday, Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-N.Y., gave a speech at a rally for Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., in which she talked about moving with her family from New York City to the suburbs in order to improve their lot in life and help her access a better education. She told the crowd “that’s when I got my first taste of a country who allows their kids’ destiny to be determined by the ZIP code that they are born in.”
.@AOC on her family moving from the Bronx to Westchester so she would receive a better education: “That’s when I got my first taste of a country who allows their kids’ destiny to be determined by the zip code that they are born in.” pic.twitter.com/ZPmAUSCyc0
— Tom Elliott (@tomselliott) October 19, 2019
Broadly speaking, Ocasio-Cortez—who has endorsed Sanders’ presidential bid and is one of the most prominent advocates for progressive policy ideas—is no ally of the school choice movement. (More on that below.) But those who support policies such as charters schools and vouchers saw her remarks and said that despite Ocasio-Cortez’s hostility to their movement, it actually makes the argument for more choice.
Chief among those making this observation was U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos, who said what the congreswoman described should be available to more children in the form of school choice. Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, one of the foremost advocates for school choice in the country, weighed in with a similar sentiment.
Far From a New Story
Let’s dig in a little more to what Ocasio-Cortez—often known as AOC—said and the tensions it reveals. Before that remark about ZIP codes, she weighed in on the conditions of the school she was attending in the Bronx:
My mom and my dad looked at the quality of education in the Bronx. And they looked at 50 percent drop-out rates. They looked at the inequity of education, the inequity of education funding, the fact that teachers weren’t paid, the fact that kids weren’t given their tools to succeed, and that frankly, it not only had to do with their income, but it had to do with their melanin too. And so they made, and my family made, a really hard decision. And my whole family chipped in to buy a small house about 40 minutes north of here.
She said she ended up living in two worlds, the Bronx and her new Westchester County home.
Ocasio-Cortez is far from alone in telling stories like this. In a July piece for CNN, Democratic presidential candidate Julián Castro recalled how his mother pulled him and his brother out of a middle school where an administrator told an assembly that half of them would not graduate. His mother enrolled them in a magnet school instead.
“Later I reflected on how profound this lesson was; low expectations were a tragic reality in the segregated schools on the west side of San Antonio where Joaquin and I grew up,” he wrote. Not surprisingly given his political background and aspirations, Castro did not use this anecdote to lobby for expanding school choice.
Perhaps because Ocasio-Cortez attracts attention in a way Castro does not, his comments did not provoke a similar public reaction.
How School Choice Advocates Use Stories Like AOC’s
Devos, Bush, and others say that children attending schools like the one Ocasio-Cortez described shouldn’t have to wait while policymakers and advocates quarrel for years over the appropriate amount of school funding, school safety, teacher quality, and related issues. Instead, the argument goes, they and their parents should be given the freedom to pick an educational environment that suits them best. And these programs, they say, can be enacted, rolled out, and used quickly by families in a matter of months.
Their argument says that if some families have the option to literally change where they live in order to access a better education, why not give all families this option when it comes to K-12? Not all charter school backers support vouchers, of course. But Sharif El-Mekki, a long-time principal at a Philadelphia charter school who’s now the CEO of the Center for Black Educator Development, said there’s a whiff of hypocrisy to politicians like Ocasio-Cortez:
It’s most oft folks who experienced their parents choosing their school who then turnaround & inexplicably wanna curtail the school choices of (other) Black and Brown folks! @AOC & the rabid hypocrisy of the affluent/influential liberals, moderates & progressives @phillys7thward https://t.co/i7lkrGf6rS
— Sharif El-Mekki (@selmekki) October 20, 2019
The Other Side to Her Story
One thing that a fleshed-out version of Ocasio-Cortez’s remarks made clear is that school funding and teacher pay were major concerns for her parents. Those two concerns are way more likely to be used in the political arena by teachers’ unions and Beltway advocates for traditional public schools than they are by the school choice community, and especially by supporters of vouchers and education savings accounts.
Criticisms of education-by-ZIP-code span the political spectrum. Hillary Clinton, no friend of vouchers, made the rhetorical case against it in 2016. So has DeVos. No one says they like it. Yet unions and their allies say that breaking the power of ZIP codes over education means a significant increase in school aid to schools in disadvantaged communities, higher teachers salaries to attract and retain better educators, and so on. And a school funding increase on its own can be enacted in the same time period as a new voucher program.
When she’s discussed higher education as a federal lawmaker, Ocasio-Cortez has mostly focused on college affordability. Yet she’s waded into K-12 policy and politics a few times, notably in public town halls on education in New York City. In another story about her family and education, as related by Jacobin magazine, she said that many years after her family left the Bronx, her cousins in the New York City borough enrolled in a charter school because (once again) the public schools fell short. But that led the congresswoman to a very different conclusion.
“We should never feel that way. And the moment we start feeling that way is the moment we should start fighting to improve them. Not to reject them,” Ocasio-Cortez said of public schools. She made those remarks at a public event also attended by Diane Ravitch, one of the country’s most prominent advocates for traditional public schools and a fierce critic of the school choice movement.
Similarly, in a town hall hosted by progressive groups in New York City about admissions to specialized high schools, Ocasio-Cortez said the discussion about education in the city should be broader and focus on lifting up all traditional public schools.
“Why isn’t every public school in New York City a Brooklyn Tech-caliber school?” Ocasio-Cortez asked, according to Chalkbeat, referring a school that requires students to achieve a certain score on a standardized test to be admitted. “Every one should be.”
Photo: Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-N.Y. speaks during a rally for Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., Saturday, Oct. 19, 2019, in New York. (Eduardo Munoz Alvarez/AP)