The battle lines on school choice, a key issue in this fall’s Presidential campaign, hardened over the summer when Democratic contender Al Gore thundered a “vouchers never” stand before the national teacher unions.
“Here is what I will never do,” Gore vowed to delegates at the American Federation of Teacher’s Philadelphia convention July 5. “I will never support private school vouchers, which would drain public money away from public education. It’s common sense. It’s as clear as A,B,C. You cannot save the public schools of America by destroying public schools in America.”
Gore’s blast brought AFT delegates to their feet, cheering wildly. The next day, Gore went before the National Education Association’s Chicago convention to drive home his agenda for more government spending on the unions’ favorite programs. To no one’s surprise, the NEA delegates voted by almost a 9 to 1 margin to endorse his candidacy.
But taking a hard line to excite core supporters carries risks for Gore, who needs also to attract the support of everyday Moms and Dads, and the general electorate.
A September 1999 Gallup Poll on school choice found that 60 percent of public-school parents favor full-tuition vouchers. Other polls have shown that among black and Latino parents, support for vouchers is even higher. And evidence continues to roll in from Florida that, far from destroying public schools, competition from vouchers can pressure them to improve.
Gore also linked the vouchers issue to the U.S. Supreme Court, noting the next President could nominate three or four new Justices. He said the constitutionality of vouchers hangs in the balance.
“That’s another reason we need to win this fight,” Gore told the AFT. “We are committed to save and safeguard public education–just as we are committed to save and safeguard a woman’s right to choose.” That seemed to suggest a President Gore might have a rather odd pair of litmus tests for High Court nominees: Zero choice for poor parents seeking to remove their children from a failing government school system, but absolute choice for those seeking to prevent their children’s birth in the first place.
George W. Bush on School Choice
The Gore tour of the teacher unions did serve to sharpen a distinction with his Republican opponent, Texas Governor George W. Bush. While refraining from using the word “voucher,” Bush has advocated an accountability tool for the federal Title I program that favors the voucher principle.
If after three years a school has not raised test scores, a Bush Department of Education would redistribute Title I and certain other federal monies in the form of $1,500 stipends to families. That money, Bush says, “can then be used by students for tutoring, for a charter school, for a working public school in a different district, for a private school–for whatever parents choose. For whatever offers hope.”
Bush favors high-stakes testing monitored by government, but he has said “the greatest benefit of testing–with the power to transform a school or system–is the information it gives parents. Armed with that information, parents will have the leverage to force reform. But reform also requires options.”
Charter schools and education savings accounts–which parents could use, tax-free, to pay for private, public, or home schooling–are two primary options Bush has advocated. As Governor of Texas, he pushed for a voucher experiment but was unable to win legislative approval, as his brother Jeb has done in Florida.
Bush’s reference to charter schools raises another issue that may also become a dividing line between himself and Gore: The extent to which charter schools can offer genuine choice and competition within the government system.
Charting Different Paths
Gore’s position on charters appears to be in flux. When he debated Bill Bradley at Harlem’s Apollo Theater on February 21, he took some hits from commentators and the predominantly black audience for opposing school choice for low-income citizens while practicing it within his own family (as does most of the Washington political establishment).
“Is there not a public or charter school in DC good enough for your child?” asked Time correspondent Tamala Edwards, to considerable applause.
By the time Gore addressed the National Conference of Black Mayors on April 28, he was using charter schools to declare himself an advocate of “a dramatic expansion of public school choice.” He said bad schools might be closed down altogether and converted to charter schools, and he declared that in the 100 lowest-performing districts he would “convert every public school into a school of choice.”
However, the same AFT convention that relished Gore’s “vouchers-never” oratory may have thrown him a curve on charters, for it was there the AFT effectively declared war on charters. The convention adopted a resolution opposing charter schools unless they follow the same long list of bureaucratic and union rules that apply to regular public schools, including hiring state-certified teachers.
Teacher licensing may provide Gore the wiggle room he needs for seemingly supporting innovative charters while in fact not straying from the teacher-union camp. Speaking at another recent teacher-union conclave, he said that as President he would “require states to guarantee that all teachers are fully certified or working towards certification. . . .” That goes beyond even President Clinton’s attempt to require 95 percent teacher certification nationwide through the pending reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act.
The reality, of course, is that charter schools, in exercising their autonomy, hire many teachers who have keen intellects in their subject field or valuable real-world experience, yet have never taken any of the professional education courses in subjects like “The Management of Diversity” that the teacher-certifiers claim are indispensable. But by demanding that all teachers be certified, Gore can support the concept of innovative charter schools while remaining in sync with a teacher union that wants charter schools simply to be government schools as usual.
Candidate Bush, meanwhile, has gone great distances–literally–to show he supports independent charter schools. During National Charter Schools Week in May, Bush visited a different charter school each day to spotlight the variety of choices these schools can offer.
The heart of Bush’s charter-school plan is a Charter School Homestead Fund that would stake charter organizers $3 billion in loan guarantees over three years to help get schools started in adequate facilities. Gore says he wants to triple the number of charter schools over the decade; he wants the federal government to spend $390 million for start-up help.
The 2000 Presidential race is far different from 1996, when Republican candidate Bob Dole favored restricting the federal role in education and Democrat Bill Clinton pushed for expanding it considerably. Now, both Bush and Gore have advocated plans that would increase federal education spending and the power of the federal Department of Education.
The non-partisan National Taxpayers Union Foundation (NTUF) recently reported that both candidates have seriously underestimated the price tags of their programs. While Gore says he would spend $11.5 billion per year more on education and Bush admits to a mere $2.8 billion annual increase, NTUF calculated that federal spending on education actually would rise $35 billion a year under the Gore plans and $11 billion a year under Bush’s.
The group added, “to his credit, Governor Bush has recognized the popularity and success of school choice and has supported a limited plan that–while not school choice per se–would put America on the path to educational freedom.” However, NTUF noted both candidates have bought into the fallacious assumption “that the answer to failing grades in education is to throw more money at the problem.”
Robert Holland is a senior fellow at the Lexington Institute, a think tank in Arlington, Virginia. His e-mail address is [email protected].