Will Democrats Become the Party of Educational Liberty?

The swing vote has swung. As I write this on November 7th at 10:30pm PST, the Democratic party has taken control of the U.S. House of Representatives and seems headed for victory in the Senate as well.

Democrats ran, and won, largely on voter dissatisfaction with the status quo. But political honeymoons are shorter than Hollywood marriages. Before too long, Democrats will have to show that they bring something to the table beyond the fact of not being Republicans. They will have to prove that they can once again become a party of ideas – and good ones, at that.

Short of a miracle, they are not going to come up with any political silver bullets in the foreign policy arena. It’s doubtful that anyone could. That leaves domestic policy. As it happens, though, a growing number of state and local Democratic politicians are already showing compelling leadership on an issue of importance to every parent, child, taxpayer, and business in America: education.

In recent weeks, several prominent Democrats have thrown their support behind education tax credit programs that would bring real school choice to families that have little if any such choice today. In NJ, state Sen. Raymond Lesniak and Assemblyman Joseph Cryan – both Democrats – are among the “new and powerful backers” of a scholarship donation tax credit. The proposal would allow businesses to donate money to private scholarship-granting organizations which in turn would provide tuition assistance to low-income families. Yet another high-profile NJ Democrat to come out in favor of the policy is popular Newark mayor Cory Booker, who sent a letter to state legislators urging them to support it.

They aren’t alone. Elliot Spitzer, NY state’s new governor-elect (D - landslide), has also come out in favor of education tax credits.

These endorsements will most likely be characterized as departures from the party’s recent anti-school-choice stance. Much more importantly, they represent a return to its historical principles and policy solutions. Democratic U.S. Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan championed an education tax credit bill back in the early 1970s, and it very nearly passed. He later mourned the political calculus that caused his party to spurn school choice, saying:

I do not think that the prospect of change in [education] is enhanced by the abandonment of pluralism and choice as liberal ideas and liberal values. If that happens it will present immense problems for a person such as myself who was deeply involved in this issue long before it was either conservative or liberal. And if it prevails only as a conservative cause, it will have been a great failure of American liberalism not to have seen the essentially liberal nature of this pluralist proposition.

School choice was rejected by Democrats because the party was so beholden to public school employee unions, and because some Democrats were fearful, according to Moynihan, of educational pluralism. But in blue states such as New Jersey and New York, absolute obeisance to union demands is not essential to Democrats’ political survival. And over the course of the past several decades, Democrats have consistently voiced support for educational diversity, and praised more humanized, child-centered approaches to learning. Both are far more compatible with a system of parental choice than with the factory-like public school monopoly we have today.

And support for school choice through education tax credits is not without its own appealing political calculus for Democrats. What other single policy could promote the loyalty of the libertarian swing voters who have just helped Democrats to power, while also meeting the demands of inner-city voters who have been clamoring for school choice.

Democrats, in other words could very easily steal the school choice issue from Republicans. Best of all, they wouldn’t actually be stealing it. Education tax credits were a Democratic idea more than thirty years ago. The torch has been passed from Moynihan at the national level to current state party leaders. Now it’s up to them to spread that fire of educational liberty, or let it fizzle out. And more than their party’s future depends on their decision.