The Washington Post’s Jay Mathews mused last month about the similarities between the education platforms of President Obama and Mitt Romney, but he was also a little too eager to dismiss their differences on school vouchers as irrelevant. The issue of equal access to private schools speaks to the core values of each party, but the topic is particularly important to Democrats who were deeply divided on the issue in the 1970s, and are so again today.
Let’s start with some history. In 1922, the Ku Klux Klan pushed a referendum in Oregon, which the voters passed, making it illegal for children to attend private schools. The Klan thought outlawing private schooling, especially Catholic schools, would help reduce cultural pluralism in the United States. The Society of Sisters of the Holy Names of Jesus and Mary, which ran a Catholic girls school in Oregon, sued, and the law was overturned by the U.S. Supreme Court in 1925 (Pierce v. Society of Sisters).
The Pierce decision is arguably the most important legal ruling in the history of public education because it said the U.S. Constitution gives parents the authority to determine how their children are educated. But the ruling did not require the government to fund public education in a manner that allows all parents to exercise this authority. Enabling low-income parents to attend government schools for free but requiring them to pay to attend private schools prevents most low-income parents from exercising the authority granted them in the Pierce decision.
In the 1960s and 70s, liberal Democrats took the lead in trying to address this problem. In his 1968 presidential campaign, Hubert Humphrey supported tuition tax credits for parents choosing private schools, as did George McGovern in 1972, but both men lost. In 1978, Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan, D-NY, and Senator Bob Packwood, R-Oregon, filed a tuition tax credit bill that had 24 Republican and 26 Democratic co-sponsors. But in a payback to the National Education Association for endorsing his candidacy, President Jimmy Carter had the bill killed and had support for tuition tax credits removed from the Democratic Party’s platform when he ran for re-election in 1980. Candidate Ronald Reagan then embraced allowing parents to pay for private schools with public funds in 1980, and the two national parties have formally maintained their contrary positions ever since.
I count myself among the growing number of Democrats who view these private options for low-income children as a moral imperative. How can the Democratic Party insist a low-income woman be funded so she can exercise her constitutional right to an abortion, then deny this same woman the support she needs to exercise her constitutional right to send her child to a private school?
While our presidential politics may be in a 30-year rut when it comes to school vouchers, the trend in both red and blue states points in a different direction. A tax credit scholarship proposal in New Jersey is being led by a Republican governor and an African-American mayor from Newark who is a rising star in the Democratic Party. Expanded vouchers and a new tax rebate scholarship in Louisiana were passed with bipartisan support. A similar bill just filed in North Carolina includes four Democratic sponsors and is being pushed by a racially diverse, politically progressive parental advocacy group. In Florida, the Tax Credit Scholarship was expanded in 2010 with the support of nearly half the Democrats, a majority of the Black Caucus, and all but one of the Hispanic Caucus.
I have great respect for President Obama. Four years ago our family worked hard to get him elected, and today my younger son is working as a field organizer for the President’s reelection campaign in Orlando, Florida. But on the issue of low-income parents receiving public funding to attend a private school, Senators Humphrey, McGovern and Moynihan were correct, and President Obama is wrong. And if Jay thinks this will be irrelevant in the campaign, he might look at how the President on Monday accepted a compromise to keep D.C. vouchers alive.
His advisers surely understand how bad it looks for this president to say no to poor children of color.
(Image from boston.com)