Editors Note: In the past few weeks the Political Hurricane has taken aim at the continued willingness of Democrats to Buck national party trends and support school vouchers. Here at the website, we want to encourage a debate and foster ideas to return progressives to preeminence in Florida. Below is a piece by Doug Tuthill in favor of school choice. Tuthill is a lifelong progressive and former President of the Pinellas County Teachers Union.
By Doug Tuthill
I am a lifelong progressive Democrat, and former president of two local Florida teacher unions, who believes our democracy is strengthened by equal opportunity, social justice and cultural pluralism. And that’s why I support extending school choice to disadvantaged students. If rich kids can have school choice, I think disadvantaged kids should have it too.
While progressives and conservatives have historically taken turns supporting and opposing school choice, for most of our history progressives have been in favor and conservatives opposed. Conservatives have been primarily concerned with immigrants and minorities using school choice to perpetuate cultural pluralism. In 1922, for example, the Ku Klux Klan pushed a referendum in Oregon, which the voters passed, making it illegal for children to attend private schools. The Klan thought outlawing private schooling, especially Catholic schools, would help reduce cultural diversity. The Society of Sisters of the Holy Names of Jesus and Mary, which ran a Catholic girls school in Oregon, sued, and the law was overturned by the U.S. Supreme Court in 1925 (Pierce v. Society of Sisters).
The Pierce decision is arguably the most important legal ruling in the history of public education because it said the U.S. Constitution gives parents the authority to determine how their children are educated. But the ruling did not require the government to fund public education in a manner that allows low-income parents to exercise this authority.
In the 1960s and 70s, liberal Democrats took the lead in trying to address this injustice. In his 1968 presidential campaign, Hubert Humphrey supported tuition tax credits for parents choosing private schools, as did George McGovern in 1972, but both Democrats lost. In 1978, Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan, D-NY, and Senator Bob Packwood, R-Oregon, filed a tuition tax credit bill that had 24 Republican and 26 Democratic co-sponsors. But in a payback to the National Education Association for endorsing his candidacy, President Jimmy Carter had the bill killed and support for tuition tax credits removed from the Democratic Party’s platform when he ran for re-election in 1980. Candidate Ronald Reagan then embraced allowing parents to pay for private schools with public funds in 1980, and the two national parties have formally maintained their contrary positions since then, but that is now changing.
A growing number of progressive Democrats in Florida and nationally are increasingly returning to their pre-1976 roots and again seeing equal educational opportunities for low-income children as a moral imperative. Many are asking how the Democratic Party can insist a low-income woman be funded so she can exercise her constitutional right to an abortion, but then deny this same woman the support she needs to exercise her constitutional right to send her child to a private school.
The tax credit scholarship program I and other progressive Florida Democrats support only serves high-poverty children. This past year, it enrolled 40,000 students, two-thirds of whom were black or Hispanic, three-fifths from single-parent households. Their average household income was only 12 percent above poverty. A state-contracted researcher found they were the lowest academic performers in the public schools they left behind.
These families are overwhelming represented in the Florida Legislature by progressive Democrats, but over the last 10 years many of these legislators have been too intimidated to support these families. Poor people don’t write $500 checks to politicians, but the opponents of school choice for poor people do, so until groups like the American Federation for Children started making contributions to level the playing field, Democrats couldn’t vote their conscience. But now they can. Today, almost half the Democrats in the Florida legislature are voting to give low-income families more school choice. We are still a long way from achieving equal opportunity, but we’re making progress.
I respect my fellow progressives who believe empowering low-income parents undermines school districts, but I hope we can all acknowledge that well-intentioned progressive Democrats can disagree about the relationship between school choice and social justice. I also hope those Political Hurricane’s readers interested in school choice will read the U.S. Supreme Court’s Pierce and Zelman v. Simmons-Harris decisions, and some of Daniel Patrick Moynihan’s writings on the relationship between school choice, equal opportunity and the public good. Our blog (www.redefinedonline.org) also contains school choice commentary and analyses from the progressive perspective.
I appreciate the opportunity to share my views with the Political Hurricane and its readers, and look forward to future dialogue.