Elections Bring Good News for Choice Supporters

Published December 1, 2004

Editor’s note: After launching the Hill Beat column two years ago and developing it into a regular monthly feature of this newspaper, Don Soifer is stepping down as Hill Beat columnist to devote more time to his Lexington Institute responsibilities. School Reform News wishes to thank Don for his work in establishing the column and for continuing as a contributing editor. Robert Holland will take over the column next month.

This November’s elections not only gave President George W. Bush four more years in the White House, but also increased the majority his party enjoys in both chambers of Congress. For supporters of school choice, the results were also good news.

South Carolina Republican Jim DeMint won a Senate seat formerly occupied by Democrat Ernest Hollings, who opposed choice. DeMint has been one of the most solid pro-school choice votes throughout his tenure on the House Education Committee. Last year he also authored an innovative proposal to make it easier for states to give parents of children with disabilities portability for their share of special education funding.

Among the school choice supporters winning a new seat in the House of Representatives was Dr. Virginia Foxx, a Republican from North Carolina’s Fifth District. A five-term state senator, Foxx is a former teacher and community college president.

Congressional choice supporters were heartened by the changes and began planning for the future.

“In 2005 we need to get our education message back to conservative principles–parental choice and local control–rather than continuing with a message equating more funding with a successful education,” said Lisa Bos, education director for the Republican Study Committee.

Bos cited a federal tax credit for elementary and secondary education as a major goal for the 109th Congress. She also expects this session to set a positive tone for the next reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act.

The November 2 results did not bring good news for everybody, particularly the two national teacher unions, the National Education Association (NEA) and American Federation of Teachers (AFT).

The NEA’s Political Action Committee contributed more than $2 million to candidates and PACs in the 2004 election cycle, with nearly all going to Democrats. Among the few Republicans receiving NEA PAC support in 2004 were Senators Arlen Specter (R-Pennsylvania) and Olympia Snowe (R-Maine); Specter also was the beneficiary of an NEA independent expenditure campaign.

The Democratic and Republican Congressional and Senatorial Campaign Committees each received $15,000 contributions from NEA PAC in 2004. In addition, NEA PAC spent more than $600,000 in independent direct mail and advertising expenditures aimed at defeating Bush.

The AFT’s PAC contributed more than $1,000,000 to candidates.

The two teacher unions have close connections with the Democratic Party. According to the Education Intelligence Agency, NEA and AFT delegates to this year’s Democratic National Convention numbered more than 400–more than every state delegation except California.

Landrieu Draws Fire for Helping DC Charters

Few Members of Congress have done more to help charter schools in the nation’s capital than Louisiana Senator Mary Landrieu, the ranking Democrat on the Appropriations Subcommittee for the District of Columbia. She has secured funding increases for charter schools and loans for the charter movement’s most pressing need, improving school facilities.

Landrieu also took steps to ensure charter school operators were getting cooperation from District officials. In early 2001, she inserted a provision into a District funding bill that directed local authorities to work with the General Services Administration to audit the availability of any surplus space in DC Public School buildings, and to make some of that space available to charter schools.

District officials were slow to respond to those mandates, and charter schools saw no subsequent improvements in available facilities. So Landrieu raised the bar. She added language to an October appropriations bill that required surplus school buildings to be offered for lease or purchase by charter schools at a 25 percent discount.

District officials, who had apparently not been notified of the new requirements, responded angrily once they heard. Several members of the DC City Council, including the lone Republican, Carol Schwartz, sharply criticized the move, as did Delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton.

A spokesman for Mayor Anthony Williams announced the Mayor’s office had initiated negotiations with Congressional leaders to resolve the differences. Williams had insisted that support for charter schools be a part of any voucher plan instituted in the District.

Don Soifer ([email protected]) is executive vice president of the Lexington Institute in Arlington, Virginia.