School Choice & Charters

Vouchers Gain Foothold Among State, Local Democrats

By Sean Cavanagh — September 18, 2012 7 min read
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This year’s presidential campaign offers at least one unequivocal contrast on education issues: The Republican candidate supports private school vouchers, and the Democratic incumbent does not.

But at the state and local levels, Democrats’ views on vouchers are more diverse and nuanced than what is suggested by the party’s national platform, which makes no mention of private school choice, or by the policies of the Obama administration, which has consistently opposed providing public money for private school costs.

Some Democrats see vouchers as offering an escape hatch for students who would otherwise be forced to stay in academically struggling public schools. Others say publicly funded private school scholarships provide opportunities for students to obtain a religious education they otherwise could not afford. Still others in the party accept vouchers when they are relatively narrowly defined, limiting eligibility to special education students, for instance, or restricting participation to impoverished students in substandard schools.

The strongest supporters of private school choice cite those instances of bipartisan backing as evidence of the concept’s broad appeal, which they predict will grow among Democrats over time.

“There’s a pretty remarkable amount of support that doesn’t get as much attention as it should,” said Malcom Glenn, a spokesman for the American Federation for Children, a pro-voucher group in Washington. “The traditional party breakdowns on school choice, the ideological breakdowns, are a thing of the past.”

Mr. Glenn offered another gauge of vouchers’ standing among Democrats: In the 2010 election cycle, his organization’s political action committee devoted about 40 percent of its $3 million in state-level campaign contributions to Democrats, based largely on their support for vouchers.

Others see little evidence that vouchers are, or will ever become, broadly accepted among Democrats. They say the tuition aid unfairly redirects money away from public schools into the private sector and, in the view of many in the party, fosters inequity.

“We need to find a way to bring equity and access to all,” said Dennis Van Roekel, the president of the National Education Association, a major backer of Democratic candidates at the federal and state levels. “With vouchers, you never find a way to get to all.”

Divisive Issue

While many Democrats and Republicans at the state and national levels have demonstrated ideological compatibility on certain issues—such as support for charter schools, merit pay, and teacher evaluation based in part on students’ academic performance—in many cases, vouchers are where the consensus ends.

Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney, like many in his party, backs vouchers, and he favors allowing parents to use federal Title I dollars and aid for special education to cover private school costs.

President Barack Obama does not support that approach. His administration recently proposed cutting off funding for the District of Columbia’s voucher program, arguing that there was enough money to support existing enrollees. The administration instead has touted the benefits of public school choice, such as charter schools.

Other Democrats, however, have gone in a different direction.

One such official is Mayor Cory Booker of Newark, N.J., a voucher supporter who was given a prominent speaking role at the Democratic National Convention earlier this month. Although his speech at the convention made no mention of the issue, the mayor described private school choice as a potentially life-changing option for students in an address delivered in May at an event hosted by the American Federation for Children.

Newark Mayor Cory Booker, a Democrat, has voiced support for private school vouchers despite the prevailing views of many in his party.

Mr. Booker, who joked that he’d heard from members of his party disappointed that he was addressing a “right-wing organization,” told attendees that on education issues, “partisanship doesn’t serve my city.”

Too many children “by law are locked into schools that fail their genius,” said Mr. Booker, who added that “there are parents every day who scheme and plan, ‘How can I liberate my child’s potential from failing schools?’ ”

Support by Democrats is also evident in some state legislatures, where lawmakers have shown an increasing appetite for voucher programs, particularly following major Republican gains in the 2010 elections.

When Florida’s GOP-controlled legislature in 2010 approved an expansion of a program that gives corporations tax credits for awarding needy students private school scholarships, the measure had significant backing from Democrats. When the original program was launched almost a decade earlier, only one Democrat in the entire legislature voted for it.

State Rep. Darren Soto, an Orlando Democrat, said he supported the recent tax-credit expansion because it would help needy families in his district seek out Roman Catholic schools and other options.

“Religious education is very important and popular to a lot of my constituents,” Mr. Soto explained in an interview. “There’s room for a strong public education system, as well as private options.”

In other states, though, Democrats have been united in opposing GOP-designed voucher proposals. Such was the case in Indiana, where an ambitious measure championed by Republican Gov. Mitch Daniels made it into law last year despite not garnering a single Democratic vote in either chamber.

Historical Support

Vouchers are perhaps most famously associated with the late economist Milton Friedman, who saw private school choice as the embodiment of a thriving free market in education.

Yet Democrats’ interest in vouchers dates back at least as far as the 1960s, notes Adam Emerson, the director of the program on parental choice at the Thomas B. Fordham Institute in Washington.

George McGovern, the Democratic Party’s nominee for president in 1972, publicly backed creating tax credits to cover families’ private school costs. The party’s platform that year supported directing “financial aid by a constitutional formula to children in nonpublic schools.”

Another influential backer of that idea in the party was the late U.S. Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan of New York, who had a strong interest in helping Catholic schools and argued that distinctions between public and private schools mattered little to families.

For those Democrats, private school choice was part of a “social justice movement,” said Mr. Emerson, who supports vouchers for poor families.

Today, some Democratic support for vouchers in the states comes from African-American caucuses representing districts with large numbers of low-performing public schools, though in other states the backing is more varied, said Mr. Glenn. In general, many Democrats are more inclined to favor expanding existing voucher programs than the politically volatile decision to approve new ones, he said.

At the same time, some rural Republicans, Mr. Glenn noted, oppose vouchers, reasoning that they don’t help their constituents because of a dearth of school options in isolated areas.

Michelle A. Rhee, the former chancellor of the District of Columbia schools, said her view of vouchers shifted dramatically during her time in that position, upon meeting parents who had tried and failed to secure coveted spots for their children in the system’s highest-performing public schools, through no fault of their own. Those one-on-one meetings convinced Ms. Rhee that vouchers in certain circumstances—for impoverished students in academically struggling schools—make sense.

Ms. Rhee’s position as chancellor was nonpartisan, though she is a Democrat and was appointed by a Democratic mayor. She now leads StudentsFirst, a national education advocacy organization that has backed the campaigns of candidates in both parties.

It was unrealistic to tell a parent “it’s just five years to fix the system, just hold on, honey, cross your fingers and hope for the best—no, " said Ms. Rhee, in an interview at the Democratic National Convention in Charlotte, N.C. “From a system point of view, it’s better not to allow those kids to leave,” she said, but “there’s no way that I was going to deny those moms the same thing I would do for my own kid.”

Another national advocacy organization, Democrats for Education Reform, has no official position on vouchers, and there are very different views on the issue among its donors and the candidates it supports, said the group’s executive director, Joe Williams.

Mr. Williams speculated that many state and local policymakers in his party regard vouchers as a distraction from politically difficult changes in policy—such as to teacher tenure and evaluation—that are already regarded warily by teachers’ unions and others, and could be viewed as encouraging parents to leave the public system.

“You’ve got a lot of elected Democrats who’ve been looking to do some pretty tough reforms in their systems,” he said. “The last thing you want to do is undercut all that.”

A version of this article appeared in the September 19, 2012 edition of Education Week as For Democrats, Some Nuance on Vouchers

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