Commentary

The Democrats’ First Step Forward?
School choice in New Jersey and beyond

This article appeared in Newark Star-Ledger on November 10, 2006.

The swing vote has swung. The Democratic party has taken control of both the U.S. House of Representatives and the Senate as well. Democrats ran, and won, largely on 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 other than 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, the Democrats are not going to come up with any silver bullets in the foreign policy arena. It’s doubtful that anyone could. That leaves domestic policy, where, as it happens, a growing number of state and local Democrats are already showing compelling leadership on an issue of importance to every parent, child, taxpayer, and business: 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 New Jersey, state Senator Raymond Lesniak and Assemblyman Joseph Cryan, both Democrats, are among what Star-Ledger reporter John Mooney calls the “new and powerful backers” of a scholarship donation tax credit. The proposal would encourage businesses to donate money to private scholarship-granting organizations, which in turn would provide tuition assistance to low-income families. Yet another high-profile New Jersey 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, another Democratic darling, and New York’s newly minted governor-elect, has also voiced support for 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. In the early 1970s, Democratic U.S. Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan championed an education tax credit bill, and it very nearly passed. But the Democrats spurned it, and he later mourned their political calculus.

“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,” Moynihan said in 1981. “…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.”

Democrats rejected school choice because they were beholden to public school employee unions, and because some Democrats were fearful, according to Moynihan, of educational pluralism. But in blue states like New Jersey and New York, absolute obeisance to union demands is not essential to Democrats’ political survival. And over the past several decades, liberals have consistently voiced support for educational diversity, and praised more individualized, 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 holds political appeal 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 long 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 the fire, or let it fizzle out. More than their party’s future depends on their decision.