Georgia Representative Stacey Evans’ Protestors Got it Wrong on Her Stand for School Choice

Netroots Nation’s annual event was in Atlanta last week. The progressive conference made headlines when Georgia Democratic gubernatorial candidate Stacey Evans was shouted down from the stage by protesters. In addition to the verbal harassment she received from the audience, a handout was circulating comparing Evans’ past votes as a member of the Georgia House of Representatives to current Education Secretary and school choice supporter, Betsy DeVos, as an attempt to discredit Evans among the more progressive wing of the Democratic party.

Rep. Evans’ transgressions, according to her opponents, included a vote in favor of a state commission to evaluate charter school petitions that communities believed to have been unfairly denied by local school boards. Also, her vote to allow the state to intervene in chronically failing public schools. What they fail to acknowledge, much less praise, is the charge she led to protect Georgia’s HOPE Scholarship, a program that provides state-funded scholarships for college education–a program progressive Democrats support, along with Georgia’s state-funded pre-K program.

(Interesting that these groups vigorously oppose the notion of vouchers or public money following a student to their school of choice for K-12 education, but seem to have no issue with the same model for pre-K or higher education. Georgia’s HOPE Scholarships and pre-k vouchers can be used at public and private schools…but I digress.)

By most standards, Evans’ support for choice and reform in K-12 education would be considered reasonable and moderate–in keeping with similar positions taken by the likes of New Jersey Senator Cory Booker, former DC Mayor Adrian Fenty and others. And yet, angry Netroots protesters would not even allow Evans to deliver her speech. Instead, they shouted over her and stood with their backs to her, blocking her view of the audience with signs that read “Trust Black Women.”

Becky Pringle, vice president for the National Education Association, took the stage after Evans was booed off, demanding progressives “stand in the gap for our children.” By contrast, she received several standing ovations.

But doesn’t Evans’ voting history suggest that “standing in the gap for children” was exactly what she was trying to do? Her positions were not always popular among Democratic leadership in the House of Representatives, but they were positions rooted in what is best for students–especially already disadvantaged students. As she attempted to say over the shouts of protesters: “One thing Democrats all agree on is that we want opportunity for all our children. Sometimes we disagree about how to get there.”

The Netroots event reveals the difficult paradox for many Democrats elected to public office: Public schools are currently more segregated than during the days before the Brown v. Board of Education decision, while school choice programs provide many lower-income families the chance at a quality education already enjoyed by wealthier families. Yet, choice in education is not portrayed as a progressive idea or even more accurately, an idea that transcends party politics. Many elected Democrats fear that support for such programs will hurt them politically even as it helps their constituents.

In a country where 1 out of every 6 students fails to graduate high school; where nearly a third of those who do graduate aren’t prepared for college; where the numbers are worse for African-American and Latino students compared to their white counterparts–one has to wonder, who is truly standing in the gap for students and who is just standing in the way?