Conservatives, Liberals & School Choice

Member Group : David Kirkpatrick

School choice is largely perceived as one conservatives support and liberals oppose. Ion reality, school choice emerged as a liberal idea from the pen of Adam Smith and remained largely so until recent decades.

Here are liberals who have endorsed school choice:

Adam Smith in The Wealth of Nations, 1776 – apparently the first to do so

Thomas Jefferson in Notes on the State of Virginia, 1782

Thomas Paine, in The Rights of Man, 1792

John Stuart Mill, in his essay On Liberty, 1859

By the time of Mill’s essay working models of school choice had emerged in such places as Vermont and the Netherlands, in both of which the practice continues today.

In the 20th century local Democrats often were the leading advocates for school choice programs.

Wisconsin state Rep. Annette "Polly" Williams sponsored the state school choice plan in Milwaukee. A liberal Democrat, twice the state chairman of the Jesse Jackson for President campaign, she was joined in her support by Milwaukee mayor John Norquist, a liberal and a former labor leader and school board member John Gardner, also a former labor leader, and Howard Fuller, Milwaukee’s Black superintendent at the time, who has since formed the Black Alliance for Educational Options (BAEO).

Cleveland Councilwoman Fannie Lewis and Mayor Michael R. White backed the voucher program there, which, in 2002, was held to be constitutional by the U.S. Supreme Court. White said "We’ve got to stop having a knee-jerk opposition to school vouchers."

Perhaps the most outspoken liberal was Sen. Patrick Daniel Moynihan (D-NY). He noted that if school choice "prevails only as a conservative cause, it will have been a great failure of American liberalism…" "(I)n the late 1960s, educational vouchers were generally regarded as a progressive proposal…But within the space of a decade this proposal has somehow been transformed into a ‘bastion of white privilege and exclusivity…if it prevails only as a conservative cause, it will have been a great failure of American liberalism."

What happened that moved conservatives to the forefront on this reform? Moynihan said liberals were identified with vouchers even in the late 1960s. Then president Lyndon Johnson’s administration’ authorized a study by Christopher Jencks, who headed a group for the Center for the Study of Public Policy, Cambridge, Massachusetts. They produced a favorable report, Education Vouchers, for the U.S. Office of Economic Opportunity in December 1970. By then LBJ was out of office and President Richard Nixon not only accepted the report but backed a 5-year project in Alum Rock, California.

Almost instantaneously vouchers became identified as a conservative plot backed by the "radical right," "fruit-cakes," "voucher vultures," "racists," or school "bashers." And leading the opposition, then and to this day, were the two largest teacher unions, the American Federation of Teachers and the giant National Education Association.

(Full disclosure: I’m not only a life member of the NEA but in 1970, when the NEA first condemned vouchers I was president of the its largest affiliate, the Pennsylvania State Education Association, chaired its delegation to the NEA convention and even gave a nominating speech for the successful candidate for the NEA Presidency. I also persuaded some delegates to vote against condemning vouchers but that was a lost cause.)

Since so many liberals are political captives of the teacher unions, even if their personal sentiments are contrary, they abandoned the cause of the students, a situation that has only recently begun to change.

Ironically, who said inner city schools "are absolutely terrible – they ought to be blown up;" that we can’t let the kids "escape"? Keith Geiger, then-NEA President who said choice supporters were "pushers."

And who said, "It is time to admit that public education…more resembles a communist economy than our own market economy"? Al Shanker, then president of the American Federation of Teachers.

Unfortunately, their recognition of shortcomings of the public schools wasn’t sufficient to persuade them to act on behalf of students which, it can be argued, would also benefit teachers.

The growing desperate circumstances of the schools, both educational and financial, is overcoming this resistance and giving growing ranks of liberals the courage to join conservatives and the general public in recapturing their heritage.

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