Saturday, September 29, 2012




By Sean Cavanagh, Education Week |

September 18, 2012  ::  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. —Paul Sakuma/AP

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."

Related Stories

By Alyson Klein, Education Week |

September 25, 2012 :: Divisions are emerging in the Republican Party on whether the Common Core State Standards—an initiative launched by governors and state schools chiefs—are a truly state-led, bipartisan effort to improve learning outcomes throughout the nation, or a federal movement that at least one opponent has dubbed "Obama Core."

And some state officials who support the common academic standards say President Barack Obama's touting of the effort on the campaign trail isn't helping matters.

The standards, which have been adopted by 46 states and the District of Columbia, have come under scrutiny in at least five states, where lawmakers have considered measures to slow or halt their adoption. But so far, no state has decided to back out, despite pressure from conservative activists.

Proponents of the standards are quick to point out that they were developed through a partnership led by the Council of Chief State School Officers and the National Governors Association, and have been embraced by a cadre of Republican governors and state chiefs, as well as the president.

GOP Headwind

Forty-six states and the District of Columbia have signed on to the Common Core State Standards. But the effort has faced some opposition:

SOURCE: Education Week

Still, the standards have already sparked a few brush fires. For instance, one GOP stronghold, Utah, recently backed out of one of the assessment consortia that are designing tests to align with the standards.

Mr. Obama's championship of the standards may not win them many fans in right-leaning states, but it's also unlikely to lead to a mass exodus, said Andrew Smarick, who until recently served as the deputy commissioner of education in New Jersey. He also worked in the U.S. Department of Education under President George W. Bush.

"It incites or inflames the people who are strongly against common core, which is not necessarily good" for the standards, said Mr. Smarick, who is now a partner at Bellwether Education Partners, a nonprofit research and consulting organization in Washington. "But [the standards] seem pretty solid in most places. I don't think this is an issue that too many places want to relitigate."

Federal Stamp?

The Obama administration has required states to adopt standards for college and career readiness in order to get wiggle room under mandates of the federal No Child Left Behind Act. Most states choose to fulfill that requirement through signing on to the common core, although Virginia was able to secure an NCLB waiver without joining.

The administration also gave states that adopted the standards an edge in securing a slice of the $4 billion Race to the Top fund, which rewarded states that embraced certain education redesign principles. It also steered $360 million to two consortia of states to help in the creation of assessments that match up with the standards.

Mr. Obama appeared to draw a connection between Race to the Top—his signature K-12 initiative—and the standards during a recent campaign stop at Canyon Springs High School, in North Las Vegas, in the swing state of Nevada. The speech did not mention Race to the Top—or the common core—by name, but the reference was clear.

"For less than 1 percent of what our nation spends on education each year, almost every state has now agreed to raise standards for teaching and learning—and that's the first time it's happened in a generation," the president said.

And in his speech to the Democratic National Convention in Charlotte, N.C., this month, U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan said that the president "demanded reform ... and 46 states responded by raising education standards."

That kind of talk doesn't necessarily go over very well in deeply Republican Utah.

"Clearly, I don't mind that the president supports the standards. I hope [Republican presidential nominee Mitt] Romney supports them," said Larry Shumway, the state's superintendent of public instruction, who is appointed by the nonpartisan state board of education.

"But [when] President Obama talks about these and connects them to his administration, it plays into the conspiracy theorists" who think the standards are a way for the federal government to put its own stamp on K-12, he said.


There are plenty of conservative activists suspicious of the standards in the Beehive State. Gayle Ruzeicka, the president of the Utah Eagle Forum, refers to the standards as Obama Core—an obvious play on Obamacare, the name that the president's opponents applied to his landmark health-care law.

"It's been co-opted by the Obama administration," Ms. Ruzeicka said in an interview last month at the Republican National Convention. "They've done everything they can to tie us in to these standards. We're Republicans and we're letting Obama take over our education system."

She would like the GOP to take a stronger stance against the standards in the presidential campaign, but she still supports Mr. Romney, who has been largely silent on the effort.

But Mr. Obama's support doesn't bother Mitchell D. Chester, who serves as the nonpartisan commissioner of education in the Democratic stronghold of Massachusetts.

President Obama can't take credit for the standards themselves—they were conceived back in 2008, before he took office, Mr. Chester pointed out. But he can take credit for "setting a high bar in terms of what states need to expect" when it comes to student achievement," Mr. Chester continued.

"That is a signature policy from this administration."


For their part, high-profile Republicans remain divided on the issue. There was no explicit mention of the common core in the GOP platform, for example. And while Mr. Romney is supportive of the effort, the former Massachusetts governor believes the Obama administration has gone too far in encouraging states to adopt them, both through the NCLB waivers and Race to the Top.

Those policies "effectively are an attempt to manipulate states into" adopting the common standards, Oren Cass, Mr. Romney's domestic-policy director, told reporters earlier this year.

But former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, who wrote the foreword to Mr. Romney's campaign white paper outlining the nominee's K-12 proposals, doesn't think the effort smacks of too much federal involvement.

"I don't believe that common core is a federal initiative," Mr. Bush said in a recent interview. "A majority of the Republican governors support this. ... I don't think it's coercive."

Still, other top Republicans have a different view. Rick Santorum, the former U.S. senator from Pennsylvania who was a runner-up for the GOP presidential nod, took an apparent dig at the standards during his own speech to the Republican National Convention.

"A solid education should be [a key rung] on the ladder to success, but the system is failing. Obama's solution has been to deny parents choice, attack private schools, and nationalize curriculum and student loans," Mr. Santorum said.

But most states have moved past such political divisions, said Chris Minnich, the director of member services for the CCSSO. "While you have pockets of resistance, we're not seeing large-scale pushback on the idea of higher, clearer standards," Mr. Minnich said. "States are moving on implementation, and that's the exciting thing."

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