School fights

Parents will ultimately win the right of school choice

By Patrick R. Gibbons
  • Thursday, September 10, 2009

Democrats have long attempted to corral many different special-interest groups under one massive tent. Unfortunately for party leaders, such a policy is not sustainable in the long run: Eventually, special interests — all promised special privileges over others — must clash.

A primary case in point is the powerful and influential teacher unions and their protracted battle against concerned parents. The unions, mostly white, are at loggerheads with a growing number of concerned minority and low-income parents — the bread and butter of Democrats' feel-good policies for decades.

Controlled by the teacher unions, the Democrats during that period have opposed all meaningful education reform, whether it's merit pay, alternative teacher certification, charter schools or parental choice. For years the unions were able to brush the opposition aside by campaigns of insistent misinformation. Now, however, the empirical evidence for the benefits of these reforms is too overwhelming for that tactic to succeed.

Already states like Florida — similar to Nevada in poverty levels and demographics — have shown that it is possible to dramatically increase the quality of education without breaking the bank. Unfortunately, the union-dominated Democratic Party has continued to push for more spending rather than effective reforms.

For more than 50 years, the racial achievement gap between whites and minorities has been of widespread public concern. Yet recently, in some states, it has even expanded. Minority and low-income students receive sub-par education, are more likely to be taught by poor-quality teachers and are far more likely to fail or drop out of school. The situation is now so bad that a core historical member of the liberal coalition, the Citizens Commission on Civil Rights, recently released a report condemning teacher unions for opposing education reforms.

Recognizing that status-quo policies mean failure, minorities and low-income parents are demanding action. Organizations like the Hispanic Council for Reform and Educational Options, DC Parents for School Choice and Democrats for Education Reform have stepped up to educate citizens and politicians alike about the benefits of reform.

A recent flashpoint for new excitement and support for education vouchers was the Obama administration's attempt to dismantle the D.C. Opportunity Scholarship program. Notoriously, the administration went so far as to bury a report that revealed the progress that voucher students were making.

As recently as this week, parental-choice activists went into the streets and attempted to block President Obama from entering the U.S. Department of Education headquarters. Activists were denouncing the loss of 216 scholarships to low-income students. The protests over the administration's attempt to shut down the program highlight the now very embarrassing divide in the Democratic camp.

Like Nevada Senate Majority Leader Steven Horsford, the Obama administration has made gestures of support for charter schools, merit pay and more realistic teacher evaluations. The efforts, however, have been too little and too late.

Parents are demanding choice, and it's only a matter of time before they win.

Patrick R. Gibbons is an education policy analyst at the Nevada Policy Research Institute.

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