Opinion: The Progressive Split Over Education, as Democrats Go Back to the Future Over School Choice

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In the late 1970s, liberal Berkeley law professors ran an audacious campaign to put school vouchers on the ballot in big, blue California. They might have succeeded, too, if not for the tragic death of U.S. Rep. Leo Ryan, a popular Democrat and former public school teacher who had agreed to lead the effort. As fate would have it, Ryan was murdered by cultists near Jonestown, Guyana, just as the campaign was set to launch.
This wild close-up in American education history zooms out to a fascinating but forgotten big picture: The left likes school choice, too, despite what critics and the press routinely suggest. In fact, support for choice runs deep in many liberal/progressive pockets, whether it’s African-Americans who have always fought for educational freedom, “alt school” reformers who chafe at smothering bureaucracies, or liberal academics in the 1960s and ‘70s who sought to blunt public schools’ elitist edge. In one amazing moment in 1977, U.S. Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan drew 50 co-sponsors, 24 of them Democrats, to a bill that would have created tuition tax credits for parents.
Who knew?
It’s impossible to dismiss how closely the closeting of this center-left support for choice tracks the 40-year rise of teacher unions in Democratic circles. The unions have become the tail wagging the Democratic dog on a suite of education policies, none more than parental choice. But those progressive, pro-choice camps never went away, and they’re beginning to re-emerge.
The result for Democrats is a perplexing case of multiple personality disorder.
Again and again, Democrats show they’re conflicted and confused. In Florida in 2010, nearly half the Democrats in the Legislature voted for a huge expansion of that state’s tax credit scholarship. Now it’s the nation’s largest private school choice program, and other Democrats back a union-filed lawsuit to kill it.
In North Carolina, the Democratic lawmaker who helped lead the charge for vouchers and charter schools, former Rep. Marcus Brandon, was national finance director for Dennis Kucinich’s 2008 presidential bid.
In New York, Democratic Gov. Andrew Cuomo is all in for charter schools, while a liberal group actually gave Democratic Mayor Bill de Blasio an award for fighting them. Undeterred, Cuomo is also pushing private school choice, aided by a long list of non-teacher labor unions. Dizzy yet?
The latest split in the party straddles neighboring states.
Late last month, Maryland’s Democrat-controlled General Assembly created the state’s first private school voucher program, nudged by gutsy African-American lawmakers from Baltimore. The program is aimed at working-class families. At $5 million, it’s small. But it’s a start, and a sign. All in all, 28 Democrats co-sponsored private school choice bills during the 2016 session.
Days later, Virginia Gov. Terry McCauliffe, former chair of the Democratic National Committee, vetoed three choice bills. One would have created a statewide virtual school. One would have allowed students in the state’s lowest-performing schools to transfer to other district schools. One would have offered more options to students with disabilities. That modest programs like these could be deemed controversial enough to veto is also a sign – of how far some Democrats have strayed from core principles like expanding opportunity.
Democrats who think these tensions can be managed are in denial. The more that choice flourishes, the more the resistance from teacher unions puts elected Democrats squarely against the wishes of grateful black and Hispanic parents who have long had the biggest appetite for options beyond district schools.
As the ranks of the latter grow, more and more Democrats will go back to the future.
My home state of Florida offers fresh examples. This year, an overwhelming majority in the state legislature expanded education savings accounts for students with special needs – a program similar to the one McCauliffe vetoed in Virginia. Two years ago, the union did its best to keep Democrats in line. It told them the program was inspired by the conservative American Legislative Exchange Council. It described it as “another scheme to commercialize education.” After Republicans provided the margin to pass the bill into law, the union filed suit. A judge dismissed the suit, and then, a year later, a funny thing happened: On the expansion bill, the union dropped its demand that the party reject the program. Every single Democrat voted yes.
About the same time, 10,000 people rallied in Tallahassee against the union-led lawsuit that seeks to end the tax credit scholarship. The program now serves 78,000 students, two thirds of them black and Hispanic, their average family income just barely above the poverty line. If the union wins, these kids will be sent back to classrooms where – and we know this from standardized test scores – the vast majority of them struggled. (A 2015 study showed that tax credit students were more likely to be among the lower performing students in their prior schools before attending the program)
This jibes with Democratic values?
Martin Luther King III headlined the rally. The day after the national holiday honoring his father, he stood before a largely minority crowd, next to prominent pastors who are die-hard Democrats. He told them the fight over the suit, which ultimately may be decided by the Florida Supreme Court, was about justice, righteousness, truth and freedom: “The freedom to choose what’s best for your family, and your child most importantly.”
I know it’s at odds with the media narrative about nefarious, right-wing plots, but I can’t help but think more Democratic leaders will embrace this view.
It’s not just because their constituents want it, but that their hearts tell them it’s right. So do their roots.

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