Who Determines Democrats’ Policy on Vouchers?

Published April 1, 2000

Democrats oppose school choice not because the teacher unions oppose it, but because the American people overwhelmingly oppose it, claimed Vice President Al Gore during a recent debate with Bill Bradley at the Apollo Theater in Harlem.

Panelist Tamala Edwards of Time magazine pointed out that 60 percent of the African-American community supported vouchers. She also questioned Gore’s “proud” opposition to vouchers while he himself and his children all were products of private schools.

“Is there not a public or charter school in DC good enough for your child?” she asked, receiving applause from the predominantly African-American audience. “And, if not, why should the parents here have to keep their kids in public schools because they don’t have the financial resources that you do?”

Gore first told Edwards to leave his children out of the debate, then said they had attended both public and private schools. His response to the parents Edwards mentioned was not to offer them vouchers to get their children into private schools, but to bring “revolutionary improvements” to public schools with a 50 percent increase in federal spending on education.

Bradley responded by calling for increased spending on Title I, but also said parents should have the freedom to move their children between public schools.

In a later follow-up on the same issue, panelist Jeff Greenfield of CNN noted that “one of the staunchest opponents of [school] choice are the two major teachers unions that happen to supply one in nine of the delegates to the Democratic National Convention.” At the same time, he continued, there are “tens of thousands of parents, disproportionately black and brown,” who do not have the choice of pulling their children out of failing public schools.

“The question is, after 35 years and $100 billion in Title I money, with [the SAT score gap] no narrower, why shouldn’t these parents conclude that the Democratic Party’s opposition to choice is an example of supporting a special interest rather than their interest?” asked Greenfield, again to applause from the audience.

Gore responded by claiming that the opposition of Democrats to school choice was a reflection of “the opinion of the overwhelming majority of Americans,” not a reflection of the opinion of the National Education Association and American Federation of Teachers. He reiterated his plan to increase federal spending on education and to bring “revolutionary improvements.”

Although Bradley responded that his one-time support of voucher experiments was “because I was listening to those parents,” neither candidate offered vouchers as a solution to the current needs of those parents.

What Polls Say about Vouchers

In 1998, the annual Phi Delta Kappa/Gallup poll found for the first time that more than half of the American public as a whole–51 percent for vs. 45 percent against–were in favor of allowing parents to send their school-age children to any public, private, or church-related school if the “government pays all or part of the tuition.” Among nonwhites, support soared from only 42 percent in 1996 to 70 percent in 1999.

In its annual survey last year, the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies found that 60 percent of African-Americans in the general public support school choice. A poll conducted in January for the Hispanic Business Roundtable showed an overwhelming 70 percent of U.S. Hispanic parents would support school choice programs that include both public and private schools.