Is Democrat/Republican a False Dichotomy? (It is in Education Reform)

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Kevin P. Chavous, Chairman of the Black Alliance for Educational Options, has a piece in the Daily Caller that advocates for the D.C. Opportunity Scholarship Act and other voucher programs. (Our local version is the Opportunity Scholarship Act, currently stuck in committee purgatory.) These state-funded programs provide vouchers to poor families to opt out of failing schools and use the money as tuition to private and parochial schools.

Says Chavous,

What was once an issue with predominantly Republican support has officially entered the political mainstream, with Democrats and Republicans working to forge legislation that will help children in states across the country…. As you read this, Democratic state legislators across the country are doing something that, 20 years ago, would have been considered politically taboo.

Chavous alludes to a sea change in the politics of education reform. While no one raises an eyebrow at Republican support for public school choice and the infusion of private managers into the governmental arena, some Democrats have been unable to navigate around the demarcation between the public and the private sector. Other factors, of course, play a role, like public union leaders’ opposition to any movement that would dilute their power and black and Hispanic leaders’ long-time allegiance to the Democratic party.

That traditional alignment is history.

Witness the strength of groups like Democrats for Education Reform. Or Democratic President Obama’s and U.S. Education Sec. Arne Duncan’s stance on school choice and the progressive federal program Race To The Top. Closer to home there’s the fact that Chris Cerf, Acting Commissioner and current whipping boy of the NJEA, is a card-carrying Democrat. Another sign of the shift is that public union members have been stalking NJ Congressional Democrats demanding that they sign “The Pledge” that commits them to supporting collective bargaining rights, but those typically reliable Democrats are proving elusive. Democratic Senate Leader Steve Sweeney has proposed that public workers dramatically increase their health benefit premium and pension contributions, a plan that differs from the one backed by union-nemesis Chris Christie only in its timeline.

One of the primary supporters for Jersey’s voucher bill is Rev. Reginald Jackson, Executive Director of the Black Ministers Council of NJ. Another is Martin Perez, President of the Latino Leadership Alliance of New Jersey. The Education Law Center, NJ’s stalwart advocates for poor students in urban districts, finds itself in the odd predicament of opposing the educational politics of leaders of minority communities as it struggles to reconcile the cognitive dissonance inherent in the smudging of lines between public and private school funding. (See NJEA’s objections here.)

In the wake of the realignment, a kind of paranoia is emerging, mostly directed towards private charter school operators and donors to educational causes. For example, Bob Braun, the Star-Ledger columnist who has devoted most of his recent pieces to raging against education reform, manages to take a great charter school like Robert Treat Academy in Newark and spew vitriol towards its educators.

Of course, on the national scene there’s renowned education historian Diane Ravitch, who spits out tweets like “Picture becomes ever clearer: Full frontal assault on public education and on teachers. Profit? Power? Control? Private sector no better.” And “NCLB= No Consultant Left Behind. No Corporate/Reformer Left Behind. No Cheater Left Behind.” And “With unions out of way, legislatures can fire teachers, increase class sizes, replace teachers with virtual studies, privatize at will.”

Any paradigm shift takes time. Opposition to education reform tenets like school choice and changes in tenure laws age will moderate; strident objections and paranoia will abate. (Example: unfounded charges that the OSA will drain public coffers was disproved yesterday when the Office of Legislative Services showed that the bill would be budget-neutral.)

In the meantime, we all might want to tone down the rhetoric and keep the focus less on the grown-ups and more on the kids.

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