Senator Joseph Lieberman (D-Connecticut), who in the past has bucked Democratic Party ideology to support school vouchers and the ending of racial preference programs, agreed to maintain silence on his unorthodox views when he accepted Vice President Al Gore’s invitation to be his running mate in this year’s Presidential race.
The Gore-Lieberman ticket received the enthusiastic blessing of August’s Democratic National Convention, where one in 12 delegates were anti-voucher teacher union members.
Lieberman is one of few Democrats to have actively supported school vouchers, and his voting record in the U.S. Senate consistently received one of the National Education Association’s lowest ratings for Democrats. Mike Antonucci of the Education Intelligence Agency has noted Lieberman voted against NEA positions eight times out of 37 over the past three years, more than any other Senate Democrat except Senator Robert Byrd (D-West Virginia).
As well as voting and arguing in favor of vouchers, Lieberman has also cosponsored voucher bills, including a 1997 bill for a pilot program that would have provided vouchers to 2,000 poor children in the nation’s capital.
“This is not a choice between public schools and private, parochial schools. That is a false choice. You can support this amendment and support the public schools in the District,” Lieberman told his fellow Senators before the DC voucher bill vote. “This is a lifeline for 2,000 children who are trapped in a school system where none of us would let our kids be.”
Lieberman explained that 85 percent of the families living in Washington’s wealthiest ward sent their children to private schools while Congress forced the poor and disenfranchised to send their children to schools that Members of Congress had rejected for their own children. “Is it fair?” he asked.
Until he became a Vice Presidential candidate in early August, Lieberman’s views contrasted sharply with those of Gore, who in July pledged to both teacher unions–the NEA and American Federation of Teachers–that he would “never” support vouchers for private schools. As soon as he got the nod from Gore, Lieberman telephoned AFT President Sandra Feldman to assure her a Gore-Lieberman administration would be anti-voucher, according to Wall Street Journal reporter June Kronholtz.
NEA spokesperson Kathleen Lyons said teacher union officials and members “expect Sen. Lieberman will follow the Vice President’s lead” in opposing school vouchers. When asked on “Meet the Press” if he would continue to support vouchers, Lieberman responded: “I will within the privacy of our relationship, but never publicly.”
Having silenced his running mate on vouchers, Gore then offered a surprising concession to the importance of the voucher issue, highlighting the risk he faces with his rigid opposition to an option many of his inner-city supporters desperately want.
“If I was the parent of a child who went to an inner city school that was failing . . . I might be for vouchers, too,” said the Vice President, according The New York Post.
If any confusion remained about the Gore-Lieberman position on vouchers, Education Secretary Richard Riley dispelled it a week after the convention, declaring to both teacher unions that the ticket “will fight vouchers till the cows come home.”
George A. Clowes is managing editor of School Reform News.