Skip to content

Democrats for (School) Choice

Share this Story on Facebook, X, Text, LinkedIn, Gmail, Yahoo Mail, or Outlook

A sure sign that John McCain isn’t your average Republican was his choice of venue for unveiling an array of proposed education reforms last week – the NAACP convention.
While McCain undoubtedly had no illusions about gaining the votes of convention delegates, his appearance said a lot about his focus in education:  on those students who still have the least opportunity.

The education platform of Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama has been out in public for some time, but with last week’s speech and K-12 education plan, McCain surged ahead in a key area – empowering parents and educators and offering real change in education.

Both Obama and McCain support increased use of alternative certification and increased support for teachers who locate in underperforming schools. But much of what a President Obama would do expands federal involvement in education and increases the role President Bush began as “Schoolmaster-in-Chief,” a role at which neither he nor any other Leader of the Free World is likely to be successful.

McCain takes a different tack, supporting greater use of virtual education, financial authority for principals, and more options for parents.

These issues draw a bright line between the two candidates.

Consider the issue of D.C. Opportunity Scholarships. Today, nearly 2,000 students in our nation’s capital use federally financed scholarships to attend the public or private school of their choice. It’s a measure supported by D.C. leaders, from former Mayor Anthony Williams to current Mayor Adrian Fenty and School Superintendent Michelle Rhee. And there’s a waiting list of 7,000 students, from families with an average income of $23,000 a year.

In fact, after more than a quarter century of opposing school choice, former Mayor Marion Barry has now lined up behind the D.C. program, noting in The Washington Post that “Moms, dads, aunts, uncles, and other guardians in my community tell me that these programs are making a difference in their children’s lives and giving them hope they have never had.”

So who is the presidential candidate offering these parents … hope?

McCain wants to see the program expanded in Washington, D.C. Obama has been afraid to stray from teachers’ union opposition to parental empowerment.  When a February news report indicated he was “open” to private school vouchers, his press office rushed out a repudiation of his words and reiterated his opposition to parental choice.

But it’s worth noting his own words that he repudiated: “If there was any argument for vouchers, it was ‘Alright, let’s see if this experiment works,’ and if it does, then whatever my preconceptions, my attitude is you do what works for the kids (emphasis mine). I will not allow my predispositions to stand in the way of making sure that our kids can learn. We’re losing several generations of kids and something has to be done.”

Perhaps not his predispositions, but certainly his politics stand in the way of giving poor parents the same right to choose their child’s school that he exercised for his own daughters by sending them to private school. After all, D.C. votes reliably Democrat, he can’t afford to anger the teachers’ unions, and if a few thousand kids have to be pushed over the side … so be it. What’s one more generation?

But it doesn’t have to be that way. Democrats with courage have begun standing up for the kids they represent: Wisconsin Gov. Jim Doyle (D) signed a big expansion of the Milwaukee voucher program. Arizona Gov. Janet Napolitano (D) signed two new voucher programs into law. In Florida, more than a third of the Democratic caucus (including more than half of the legislative Black Caucus) supported a $30 million corporate tax credit program for private school scholarships. Legislative Democrats in Louisiana, New Jersey, and Maryland have similarly taken the lead in supporting more educational options for students.

And in Iowa, Gov. Tom Vilsack (D) signed into law a tax-credit scholarship program that passed the legislature with overwhelming Democratic support.  Pennsylvania Gov. Ed Rendell (D) signed a $10 million expansion of Pennsylvania’s tax credit scholarship program for low-income kids.

Those last two examples are particularly relevant to Virginia, where Del. Chris Saxman, R-Staunton, has annually introduced legislation for the same kind of corporate tax credits aimed at helping kids in places like the City of Petersburg, where 48 percent of sixth graders and 58 percent of eighth graders cannot read on grade level – even after years of extra state support, school restructuring, and the appointment of a state instructional supervisor.

Saxman is reinvigorating his effort for next year, starting with a press conference Tuesday at  Richmond’s Capitol Square Bell Tower with former D.C. City Councilman Kevin Chavous, chairman of Democrats for Education Reform. Hopefully, the message Chavous will send to Virginia Democrats – and to Barack Obama – is that kids come first; politics, last.

Share this Story on Facebook, X, Text, LinkedIn, Gmail, Yahoo Mail, or Outlook

Join Our Email List

Sign me up for:
This field is for validation purposes and should be left unchanged.