Why Not Have Democracy in Education?

Published December 1, 1998

Pennsylvania’s Southeast Delco School District adopted in early 1998 a local student grant program. It would provide $250 for each kindergarten student, $500 for every student in grades 1-8, and $1,000 for each grade 9-12 student to attend a school of his or her choice, public or private.

A month after the program’s adoption, a coalition asked the Delaware County Circuit Court of Common Pleas to stop it. In late July, a legal maneuver asked the court to throw out the voucher plan without even a hearing. Finally, on October 14, the Common Pleas Court ruled that the school board lacked authority under the Pennsylvania school code to pass such plan, thus halting the program purely on statutory grounds.

The opponents of choice seem totally unaware that other democratic developed nations provide public support for educational choice. A survey of teacher unions in other nations found a majority of them do not oppose this practice, and several actively support it.

Some opposition is difficult to understand. The American Civil Liberties Union claims to support civil liberties, especially when they are threatened by government. The U.S. Supreme Court, in 1925, unanimously ruled that parents have a constitutional right, a civil liberty, to determine the education of their children. Yet, wherever attempts have been made to use public funds to provide student grants at the K-12 level to make this civil liberty a reality for those who cannot afford it, the ACLU has objected.

Other opponents are the League of Women Voters and the Parent Teacher Association. Why does a group like the PTA, supposedly devoted to parental involvement and rights, oppose the ability of parents to determine their children’s education? Charlene Haar, president of the Education Policy Institute in Washington, DC, says she can find no instance where the PTA has disagreed with the teacher unions on any fundamental question. That may explain why the PTA’s parent membership has been falling.

The National Education Association, in a document to its affiliates advising them how to create coalitions, recommended naming someone from the PTA and/or the League of Women Voters as a coalition spokesperson, as those groups have more credibility than do the unions. From the union’s point of view, this makes sense. But why are the PTA and LWV so willing to provide cover for the unions?

What they are doing is made clear by looking at the sources of major support for the Southeast Delco challenge. Prominent among the lawyers is Washington, DC, attorney Robert H. Chanin, general counsel for the NEA, who is joined by Mark Widoff and Lynne Wilson, staff attorneys for the Pennsylvania State Education Association, and Deborah R. Willig and Ralph J. Teti, attorneys for the Pennsylvania Federation of Teachers.

The Pennsylvania coalition opposing school choice claims to include 36 organizations, some of which are 501(c)(3) organizations. Under federal law, this gives them nonprofit status, freeing them from some taxes and making contributions to them tax-deductible. In return for those advantages, these organizations are prohibited from lobbying, or advocating passage or defeat of legislation, except as “incidental” to their operation.

Nevertheless, some of these organizations have consistently and publicly opposed publicly funded student grant programs since the issue first became prominent in Pennsylvania in 1991. They should be careful. Their cavalier attitude toward the legal restrictions on nonprofit organizations may cost them members . . . and may lead to lawsuits charging them with violating the law.

Why, in a democracy, do we take such a coercive approach to education? For millions of youngsters this obviously does not work,. Some schools have dropout rates as high as 80 percent and abysmal achievement rates; schools, incidentally, where these opponents do not send their own children. Every approach to correct this has failed.

Why not try democracy? The results couldn’t be worse.

Former public school teacher David Kirkpatrick was a senior staffer for the National Education Association, the American Federation of Teachers, and the American Association of University Professors.