As the need for vouchers increases, the politics of school privatization gets interestinger and interestinger.
“Some NYC teachers: ‘Don’t send your kids here!’” screamed the headline in a New York Post article last week. The damning story goes on to explain how over 80 percent of the teachers in eight public schools – including charters – said they would “never recommend those schools to children.”
At two of the schools — Foundation Academy HS in Brooklyn and recently-closed Monroe Academy for Business and Law in The Bronx — 100 percent of teachers who answered the survey said they’d tell parents to pull their kids.
“The school was a mess,” said Lourdes Lebron, a former PTA president at Foundation. “The environment was horrible. There were fights. The school didn’t even have a yearbook. What memories are the students going to have about the school? These kids got nothing.”
There were several reasons given for these intolerable situations. Some blamed the administrators of the schools, while others blamed the city. A few administrators claimed that disgruntled teachers, having been let go, were just being spiteful.
The question becomes, “What are the parents of the kids attending those schools supposed to do now?” Given that some of the schools are charters – usually a better alternative than local traditional schools – and given that New York has no private school choice program, it seems that these families will have no option but to shell out money for a private school … if they can afford one.
This story reminded me of others dating back to the 1990s.
In 1993, columnist George Will was on “This Week With David Brinkley” and asserted that “50 percent of urban area public school teachers with school-age children send their children to private schools. What do they know that we ought to know?” National Education Association president Keith Geiger, also on the show, attempted to trump Will with a lame gotcha, “It’s actually 40 percent.” Geiger clearly gotcha’d himself.
More than a decade later, nothing much had changed. A study by the Fordham Institute in 2004 found that in big cities many teachers send their own kids to private schools.
In Philadelphia, 44 percent of the teachers put their children in private schools.
Cincinnati – 41 percent
Chicago – 39 percent
Rochester, N.Y. – 38 percent
San Francisco-Oakland area – 34 percent
New York City – 33 percent.
Well, it sure is nice that so many urban public school teachers choose not to send their children to those icky public schools. But what about the parents of kids who can’t afford to do that? What are they supposed to do? According to many teachers and the unions they belong to, well, suck it up.
But there is a solution and it’s called a voucher or opportunity scholarship, which enables a child to use public funds to attend a private school. And no one knows their advantages better than African-Americans and Hispanics.
In fact, the country’s first voucher law came into being in 1989 via a joint effort of the recently deceased Polly Williams, a black Democratic Milwaukee state assemblywoman, and Tommy Thompson, the white Republican governor of Wisconsin.
A 1999 survey by Public Agenda, a nonpartisan research group, found that 68 percent of blacks favor vouchers. In 2007, an Education Next poll showed that 68 percent of African-Americans and 61 percent of Hispanics favor the private school option.
A 2014 survey by the Friedman Foundation showed that blacks and Latinos are the groups most likely to favor vouchers.
When you look at the Washington D.C. Opportunity Scholarship Program, it’s hardly surprising that so many minorities see vouchers as their ticket to a better life. The program has averaged a 93 percent graduation rate, with 90 percent of those graduates enrolling in college, and a 92 percent parent satisfaction rate since 2010. (The grad rate in D.C. traditional public schools is supposedly 64 percent, but even that dismal number is questionable.)
While there are 39 private choice programs in 18 states and D.C. that help those in need, there aren’t nearly enough to match the demand. And the issue has some very interesting political ramifications. While a majority of Republicans have long favored this kind of school choice, Democrats have fought fiercely against it, having aligned with the adamantly anti-choice teachers unions. But things are changing; over the past several years, more and more courageous Dems have been bucking the establishment and fighting passionately for school choice. In addition to the aforementioned Williams and her partner in crime, the great Howard Fuller, long time Democrat strategist Joe Trippi, former California state senator Gloria Romero (who now runs the Foundation for Parent Empowerment) and hedge-fund manager and self-described “pragmatic, realist liberal” Whitney Tilson have become apostates. And many more are now lining up for the cause.
Included in the “breakaway Dems” category is Kevin Chavous, a former D.C. councilman who has been deeply involved in a myriad of education reform groups for years. After the Nov. 4th election, he wrote an op-ed for USA Today in which he acknowledged that the results exposed a schism within the Democratic Party.
Hidden in the news coverage of the midterm elections looms a bigger problem for my fellow Democrats than just a bad night at the polls: the voters’ wholesale rejection of the party’s most powerful backers: teachers’ unions. Led by the NEA and AFT, the national teachers’ unions boasted of spending $80 million in this election to defeat candidates who support vouchers, teacher accountability and other promising education reforms. They lost. And they lost big.
The aftermath offers a lesson to the Democratic Party — and Hillary Clinton — as they prepare for 2016.
… What a great irony it would be in 2016 if the Democrats, led by Hillary Clinton, suddenly found themselves on the wrong side of a major civil rights issue. (Emphasis added.)
The teacher’s unions know they are on the losing side of this fight, even if they desperately hope that national Democrats aren’t paying attention. For months Randi Weingarten, the current president of the American Federation of Teachers, has been a fixture on TV screens vowing to stop candidates challenging the status quo education establishment. After the election, she canceled a scheduled press call. There was little good news to report.
The normally demure Condoleezza Rice took it one step further. On a radio show last week, she bluntly stated,
Poor black kids trapped in failing neighborhoods schools, that’s the biggest race problem of today. That’s the biggest civil rights issue of today. Anybody who isn’t in favor of school choice, anybody who isn’t in favor of educational reform, anybody who defends the status quo in the educational system, that’s racist to me.
Neither teacher union leaders nor traditional Dems have weighed in on Chavous’ op-ed or Rice’s statement, but I think it’s clear that the division in the Democratic Party is growing into a gaping chasm. School choice has become a powerful wedge issue and has brought with it a great irony, as alluded to by Kevin Chavous. There are still many who consider themselves “progressive” who want to keep an outdated and sclerotic zip-code-mandated public education system in place. And it’s the stodgy old conservatives who want to – if not blow up – radically alter and improve the dreadful status quo for millions of kids that the progressives claim to care about.
As an optimist, I believe that at some point, enough Dems will tell their union buds to kiss off and embrace vouchers. When that happens, a tipping point will be reached and there will be no turning back. That will be a great day for the most vulnerable children of America, who will be liberated from the wretched public schools that teachers refuse to send their own kids to.
Larry Sand, a former classroom teacher, is the president of the non-profit California Teachers Empowerment Network – a non-partisan, non-political group dedicated to providing teachers and the general public with reliable and balanced information about professional affiliations and positions on educational issues. The views presented here are strictly his own.