Democrats Shift Stand on School Choice

Published February 1, 2000

A key Democrat Party group is calling for radical reforms to remedy the persistent failure of the existing public school monopoly to improve student achievement. These reforms include getting rid of teacher tenure and teacher certification, instituting pay scales based on student performance, withholding money from failing schools, and endorsing choice and competition as agents of educational change.

The shift in the Democrat camp makes it much more difficult for the teacher unions, People for the American Way, and other apologists for public schools to cloud the school choice debate by claiming the parental choice movement is part of a “right-wing conspiracy” whose aim is to “destroy public schools.”

In fact, the Democratic Leadership Council, which issued the 10-point reform plan last fall, blasts the U.S. public education system as being “too monopolistic,” offering a “one-size-fits-hardly-anyone” model “that strangles excellence and innovation.” Despite two decades of reform recommendations from blue-ribbon commissions, “the guardians of the status quo–members of the education establishment–have had little incentive to change.”

“We need a public school system where the choice for failing schools is simple: Change or perish,” says the DLC plan, published by DLC president Al From in the Fall 1999 issue of Blueprint. The time has come, the plan continues, to bring life to “a larger desert of monopolistic and cookie-cutter schools” by introducing the “forces of choice and competition to every public school in America.”

The DLC’s concept of public schools in the 21st century isn’t the same model that prevailed during the past century.

“We should rid ourselves of the rigid notion that public schools are defined by who owns and operates them,” declares the plan. “In the 21st century, a public school should be any school that is of the people (accountable to public authorities for its results), by the people (paid for by the public), and for the people (open to the public and geared toward public purposes).”

According to the plan, the school system of the future should be a network of accountable schools “of all shapes, sizes, and styles with their own decision-making authority–each of which competes against the others for its students.” Giving parents a wide range of types of public charter schools to choose from “unleashes the power of market competition where it is needed most.”

Although the plan calls for rooting out “great pockets of mediocrity” in public schools that serve affluent and suburban communities, it leaves no doubt about where change is needed most: In public schools that serve poor communities. There, performance by almost any standard is a “disaster”: dropout rates are high, test scores are “abysmal,” and even the students who do graduate often lack the skills needed to get jobs.

Under the DLC proposal, teachers working in troubled schools would be offered special rewards. In addition, individual teacher pay would be based on how much the teacher raised student performance, with teachers who perform the best being rewarded the most. The proposal directly contradicts the teacher unions, for whom the idea of pay-for-performance is anathema.

The teacher unions also would not support the elimination of teacher tenure, another casualty under the DLC plan. According to the Council, the idea of educators having a virtual lock on their jobs is offensive to “the basic American values of work, family, and personal responsibility.”

A third item unlikely to sit well with the teacher unions is the proposal to change teacher certification requirements to make it easier to for “the best and brightest” to become teachers. Currently, many interested and knowledgeable individuals aren’t allowed to teach because they don’t have a degree from a school of education. The DLC plan calls for certifying teachers based on their knowledge and abilities, not on their education school credentials.

While some planks in the 10-point plan–particularly the call for national standards and tests, year-round school, and expansion of public school responsibilities to preschool ages–will not please all education reformers, the aim of the DLC plan is to spark discussion. It certainly will do that.

George A. Clowes is managing editor of School Reform News.

For more information …

The Democratic Leadership Council’s education reform agenda, New Democrats’ 10 Key Reforms for Revitalizing American Education, is available on the Internet at