Democrats want school choice, too

Mary Stubblefield

Little doubt remains here in the Silver State that the education system is broken and in dire need of significant reform. The lackluster performance of the state's public school system is something Nevadans of all political persuasions recognize, as thousands of students graduate from high school each year without the basic skills needed to be successful either in college or in the work force. 

A recent statewide survey conducted for the Nevada Policy Research Institute by the Friedman Foundation for Educational Choice asked Nevadans to identify which type of school – from a list of five – they would prefer for their own child. Only 11 percent of respondents chose a traditional public school. Asked why they chose the type of school they had, respondents picked "academic quality" and "school curriculum" as the top two answers.

Yet the powers that be within the Nevada education establishment have yet to come up with an effective solution to the state's monumental education problems. While numerous efforts have been made by certain lawmakers to reform portions of the system, none have yet produced the restructuring the system desperately needs. Serious progress toward reform, however, may be within Nevadans' collective grasp come November.

The Las Vegas Review-Journal reported this week that paperwork has been filed with the secretary of state's office for a Ballot Advocacy Group that is considering an initiative to put school vouchers before voters in November. The initiative would give voters the opportunity to voice their desire for alternatives to Nevada's educational status quo.

There is reason to believe such a ballot initiative will find support not only among Republicans – who traditionally have supported school choice initiatives – but from Democrats as well. Recently, Democrats at both the state and national levels have begun to see increased school choice as the best means to positively reform education.

The NPRI/Friedman survey reveals that Nevada Democrats are more or less split on the issue of expanding parental choice under the education system, whether through charter schools (which are viewed favorably by 46 percent of Democrats), school vouchers (which are viewed favorably by 37 percent of Democrats) or other measures. While support among Democrats for such measures is far from overwhelming, it is strong enough to suggest that a significant number of them are willing to break from the party line usually espoused by their elected representatives.

Nationally as well, more and more Democrats, including many elected officials, are organizing in support of expanding educational freedom. The two-year-old national organization Democrats for Education Reform has made waves recently by pushing not only for greater parental control over education, but also for the continuation of No Child Left Behind. The organization supports Democrats who address the nation's educational problems by confronting the traditional top-down power structure of most school systems and empowering parents to have access to better schools for their children.

In 2006, six Democrats in the New Jersey State Legislature sponsored legislation that would provide educational tax credits to low-income families, enabling them to send their children to private schools. That same year, the Arizona State Legislature made enormous progress on school choice, implementing four improved voucher programs allowing underprivileged students to attend private schools. Democratic Gov. Janet Napolitano had twice vetoed a tax credit scholarship program before finally allowing it to be passed without her signature. Her ultimate decision came not from an ideological change of heart, but out of her awareness of the increasing difficulty of opposing programs that are both popular and successful.

Among the latest figures on the left to join in the call for increased educational freedom is Democratic heavyweight and presidential candidate Barack Obama. "I've consistently said, we need to support charter schools," Obama told The Politico's David Mark in an interview published Feb. 11. "I think it is important to experiment, by looking at how we can reward excellence in the classroom."

In addition, a Feb. 15 New York Sun article reported on Obama's openness to the idea of private school vouchers. "I will not allow my predispositions to stand in the way of making sure that our kids can learn," Obama told the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel's editorial board, according to the article.

The actual number of Nevada Democrats who might ultimately support a voucher initiative is unknown. But it is clear that support for increased educational freedom is not coming from Republicans alone. Many Democrats and independents are deciding they can no longer allow their own predispositions toward vouchers and school choice to stand in the way of providing Nevada's children with the quality education they deserve.

Mary Stubblefield is education initiatives coordinator at the Nevada Policy Research Institute.