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How Democrats are changing course on school choice

Posted on Monday June 18, 2012 | New Jersey

The issue of scholarships for urban kids to attend nonpublic schools is coming to a head in the Legislature. The governor has made the Opportunity Scholarship Act a priority. Moreover, the debate on this topic has shifted within the Democratic Party.
It used to be that school choice was taboo among Democrats. But many key party members have come to see school choice as a civil rights issue. If rich white kids can go to the school that best fits them, why can’t we provide the same opportunity to poor minority kids?

I remember a big-city mayor telling me that the biggest problem in his school system wasn’t money; it was work rules. Some teachers wouldn’t do anything that was outside their contract; some won’t even prepare lesson plans. The teachers union has been intransigent on these issues in a way that hurts schools and adversely affects the image of the great many teachers who are doing an excellent job.

A legislator who is not in lockstep with the union risks opposition in the next election — often in a primary. Some elected officials are exasperated with the union, but afraid. Others don’t want to give Gov. Chris Christie a “victory.” But what about a victory for disadvantaged kids? 

Scholarships don’t raise the same constitutional questions as vouchers because the state does not make any appropriations, and therefore cannot favor particular religious schools. Many of the kids in urban Catholic schools aren’t Catholic — they just want a better education.

Saying it’s unfair to leave some kids behind in a public school is tacit acknowledgement of a serious problem. If you saw 10 people drowning and knew you could rescue only one or two, would you let them all drown in order to be fair? Let’s flip the logic. Democrats almost all favor affordable housing policies with lotteries that give some people a wonderful new home while leaving others behind. Available funds might be better spent making more existing homes more energy-efficient and lead-free. A housing lottery that leaves people behind is okay, but an education lottery somehow is not? A housing lottery does nothing for those who lose, but an education lottery would. Smaller class sizes would allow for more individual classroom attention and competition might spur reforms on some of the work rule issues.

Cost? Many private schools perform better at a lower cost per student. I was board chair of such a school. The teachers went the extra mile; they even painted classrooms outside school hours. They earned considerably less on average than public school teachers but were treated like professionals and given much more latitude on how to teach. The bottom line was high-quality instruction, high teacher morale and greater budgetary efficiency. If more such schools close, public education costs will rise.

Quality? Lotteries make it clear that far more people want into schools of their choice than current space allows. Kids from private or parochial schools have succeeded at top prep schools and universities. Moreover, unlike public schools, they are free to leave if quality is lacking.

Politicians tend to focus on the short-term issues of getting re-elected and not giving victories to the other side. Voters would be less cynical if these politicians took a longer-term view and actually tried to improve education.

These officials ought to worry more about 10-year-olds who will be eligible to vote in two more election cycles, and who might be annoyed at someone who denied them the best education available. And they should consider that someday they will be out of office and asking themselves whether they did the right thing when they had the chance.

Tom Byrne is former chairman of the New Jersey Democratic State Committee and an investment manager in Princeton.