Examining ‘Unacceptable’ School Choice Rhetoric

Published February 16, 2016

On January 30, the final day of National School Choice Week (NCSW), Washington Post education reporter Valerie Strauss snatched from obscurity a cranky former teacher’s blogpost denouncing NCSW and awarded it instant Internet fame by publishing a long article of her own that relied on many of the arguments offered by the blogger.

Perhaps Strauss, who also runs The Answer Sheet blog, was tired of reading about all the happy celebrations of parental choice occurring throughout the country—some 16,000 of them—and wanted to inject a “bah, humbug” into the national conversation—or let someone do it for her.

Not only did the Post’s education gatekeeper publish Minnesotan Sarah Lahm’s post from her blog, Bright Light Small City, Strauss used the former teacher’s lead sentence as the headline in her own story, titled “What Passes for Acceptable School Choice Rhetoric is Frightening.

After reading Lahm’s reflections on a NCSW forum held at the University of Minnesota’s Humphrey School of Public Affairs, a quick riposte could be: “What Passes for Acceptable Anti-School-Choice Rhetoric is Frightening.”

Much of Lahm’s blogpost centered on the supposed incongruity of the event being held at a school named for former Minnesota U.S. Sen. Hubert H. Humphrey, who sponsored the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

While offering no supporting facts, Lahm insinuated school choice contributes to the re-segregation of public schools, thereby standing in opposition to Humphrey’s work. This claim is totally fictitious. All the available empirical research shows when children and their parents are empowered with school choice, students are able to attend schools that are more racially integrated than many public schools.

Further, Humphrey was among a group of Democratic senators, led by Daniel Patrick Moynihan of New York, who strongly supported tax credits for families paying tuition at private or parochial schools. Humphrey ran for president in 1968 on a platform calling for tuition tax credits as a tool to help equalize educational opportunity for underprivileged kids.

Policy analysts at the nonprofit RedefinED have been blogging for years about how Democratic progressives such as Humphrey, Moynihan, and George McGovern preceded Republicans in advocating for school choice. According to RedefinED, the Democratic Party didn’t reverse its position on school choice until the National Education Association, one of the nation’s most powerful teachers unions and an implacable foe of school choice, gave then-presidential-candidate Jimmy Carter its first-ever presidential endorsement in 1976. Carter, who had previously supported some school choice ideas, eventually reversed course and promised the teachers union he would kill Moynihan’s voucher bill.

Lahm also suggested President Ronald Reagan is partly to blame for the nation’s educational shortcomings, arguing the country would be much better off if it were “less Reaganite” and “more Humphreyish.” According to Lahm, the Reagan-era report A Nation at Risk, a landmark study that sounded the alarm about mediocrity in public education, “helped propel America away from further investment in public schools, and toward school choice schemes (hint: privatization).”

This claim is also factually untrue. Per-pupil spending on public education doubled in inflation-adjusted dollars in the 30 years following the 1983 release of that critical report, and federal control of education has continued to advance as a result of policies pursued by Republican and Democrat administrations alike. These government programs and mandates have posed a significant threat to hard-won gains for families that have desperately sought the freedom to choose good schools, wherever they may be, for their children.

If Humphrey were still with us, the happy warrior would likely have attended National School Choice Week rallies to celebrate the steady advances in both public and private choice, and he would likely be a leader in the fight to extend school choice to all those students currently suffering in failing school districts. Humphrey believed in people, rather than massive, government-imposed educational bureaucracies, a claim evidenced by his often-repeated philosophy, “The impersonal hand of government can never replace the helping hand of a neighbor.”

Based on the true history of Humphrey, holding a National School Choice Week rally at a school named in his honor seems most appropriate, contrary to the claims made by Lahm and Strauss.