Democrats Press Obama for School Choice Options

Published February 1, 2009

With a new administration in the White House, Democrats who favor major changes to the nation’s education system say the opportunity for a breakthrough has come.

Since the election of Barack Obama to the presidency, the national advocacy group Democrats for Education Reform (DFER) has stepped up its efforts to promote public charter schools. Last December, an online petition urged the new president to consider enrolling his two daughters in a Washington, DC charter school and to “join us in fighting for parental choice so that every child in America has the kind of opportunities they deserve.”

Charter Support

Although the Obamas eventually chose for their two daughters an exclusive private school—Sidwell Friends, Chelsea Clinton’s alma mater—DFER Executive Director Joe Williams expects increased support for charter schools from Congress and the White House. Charter schools are independently operated and publicly funded schools subject to the same testing requirements and non-selective policies as other public schools.

Continuation of the Washington, DC Opportunity Scholarship Program, which provides scholarships for more than 1,700 poor students in the nation’s capital to attend a private school of their choice, is much less certain.

Williams said reauthorization may be tied to larger issues of education funding. “No decision has been made yet” concerning DFER’s stance on the Opportunity Scholarship Program, he said at press time.

Feather in the Cap

DFER won its first victory from Obama before the new president was sworn in. In an official “education transition memo” sent to the president-elect on November 11, the group championed Chicago Public Schools CEO Arne Duncan for the position of education secretary. Obama offered Duncan the position a month later.

“That’s a great feather in DFER’s cap—no doubt,” said Robert Enlow, president of the Indianapolis-based Friedman Foundation for Educational Choice, a leading supporter of expansive school choice reforms.

DFER’s memo noted Duncan, a personal friend and basketball buddy of the new president, would have a good chance of reform success at the national level because his style was less “confrontational” than others’.

Williams applauded the “tag-team” efforts of mayors and superintendents in Chicago, New York City, and Washington, DC, “especially the emphasis they’ve put on choice for parents,” he said.

Changing the Debate

The Democratic Party has traditionally adhered closely to the interests of its teacher union backers, but Williams believes the time is ripe for the party to press for school reform.

“The ground is fertile on the Democratic side for these debates,” Williams said. “This had been the place where debates were shut down, but the environment has changed.”

Williams said his organization is giving greater credibility to the notion that someone can be a Democrat and support reforms such as school choice.

Enlow is optimistic about DFER’s success. “They’re a growing organization, and I think their impact at the state and local level will only continue to grow,” he said.

Difficult Challenge

Although Obama campaigned in favor of some meaningful education reforms, such as charter schools, he also courted the endorsement and support of established political players, including the National Education Association. Williams expects that dynamic to create a challenge requiring careful movement from the new president.

“If he can thread the needle politically and keep various factions within the party in line, the significance there is he will have the credibility to represent change educationally,” Williams said.

Cooperation Essential

DFER’s executive leader believes Obama’s breakthrough might come in the area of teacher compensation.

“There’s an opportunity for him to find a way to do merit pay experiments that recognize some teachers do a better job than others,” Williams said.

In pursuing merit pay, school choice, and other reforms, Williams believes it will be vital to garner support from Congressional Republicans.

“I can’t imagine any of this getting done without a bipartisan coalition,” Williams said.

Enlow notes cooperation is also essential among Friedman, DFER, and other groups sharing many common education reform goals.

“This is about developing partnerships that last and are meaningful, and that will be important for moving school choice forward,” Enlow said.

Ben DeGrow ([email protected]) is a policy analyst for the Independence Institute, a free-market think tank in Golden, Colorado.