Crisis on the Left

Helping the underprivileged means education reform, which unions don't like

By Geoffrey Lawrence
  • Wednesday, July 25, 2012

"It's a civil rights issue."

That's what longtime civil rights leader Howard Fuller says about school choice. Fuller, a founder of Malcolm X Liberation University, oversaw the establishment of the first school voucher program in the nation while working as superintendent of Milwaukee public schools in the early 1990s.

Today, more than 23,000 students in Milwaukee are enrolled in a school of choice through the Parental Choice Program that Fuller implemented.

Who are these students?

Mostly, they're children of families who were dissatisfied with performance at the local public school they were zoned into, but could not afford an alternative on their own.

As Fuller — now associated with the Black Alliance for Educational Options — says, "If you got money in America, then you got choice."

"Those of us who got money, if schools don't work for our kids, we're going to do one of two things: we're going to move to communities where they do work, or we're going to put our kids in private schools and you don't care what the government says."

Fuller observes that it's disproportionately the children from poor and minority families that are harmed when monopolistic school districts deny families the right to choose which school their children will attend. And, if one can judge from the outcomes in areas where families are given choices, then he's certainly right.

Researchers who have tracked the usage of school choice programs in Milwaukee, the District of Columbia, Cleveland, Florida and elsewhere have noted that applicants are disproportionately from low-income and minority families. Frustrated with the failures of the schools they were zoned into by their local school district, these families sought better opportunities for their children.

How has it worked out?

While numerous studies have shown that school choice results in higher student performance, these improvements are particularly noticeable in the extremely large gains made by minority students.

A review of Florida's slate of late-1990s education reforms by the Nevada Policy Research Institute shows that, while Florida's students as a whole made significant gains over the ensuing decade, these improvements were led by Hispanic and African-American students, who now had access to choice.

These students now boast higher test scores, a higher likelihood of graduation, and the chance at a better life.

So if school choice really is a "civil rights issue," as Dr. Fuller claims, then why do so many politicians on the political Left oppose the idea?

While many might recognize that school choice is beneficial to all students — and especially to those from low-income and minority families — politicians' allegiance to such families is at odds with their allegiance to a prominent campaign donor on the Left: teacher unions.

At the national, state and local levels, teacher unions have been the primary opponent to any form of school choice.

To understand why this might be the case, one first has to understand an important dynamic about unions: Union power is at its peak when there is a monopoly employer. When competing employers bid against each other to hire the best educators, these educators soon realize that they need no longer fear abuses by the monopoly employer and, hence, are not in need of a union. That's why union bosses strive so hard to preserve the monopoly.

A central means by which teacher union bosses seek to preserve the monopoly is by funding political candidates who will do their bidding. Education Next, an industry journal, reports that the National Education Association is the nation's largest contributor to political campaigns.

During the 2008 election cycle, teacher unions gave more than $800,000 to political campaigns in Nevada alone. This figure doesn't include the unions' third-party expenditures on political campaigns and issues.

Not only does this money go almost entirely to candidates on the political Left, but the National Education Association also gives money to left-wing organizations such as the Center for American Progress, Democratic GAIN and Demos. According to tax filings, the Nevada State Education Association also helps fund the Progressive Leadership Alliance of Nevada.

Teacher unions have used their vast financial resources to snake their way into progressive politics and choke out the drive for school choice — even though it's primarily the fates of low-income and minority children in urban areas that hang in the balance.

Make no mistake, this division of interests will develop into a political crisis for the Left as school choice continues to spread around the nation — and with it, recognition that school choice might rightly be considered a "civil rights issue."

At some point, politicians will have to choose between union bosses and children.

Geoffrey Lawrence is deputy policy director at the Nevada Policy Research Institute. For more visit

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