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For Democrats, Embrace of Options Must Extend Beyond Celebratory Week

Posted: 01/30/2012 9:52 am

For seven days, the debate shifted.

Gone was the standard rhetoric from backers of the educational status quo intent on maintaining a system that puts the safety of a system over the performance of its pupils. Quiet were the cries of anger at policies that give children the best chance to succeed.

Last week was different. It was National School Choice Week, a chance for a diverse set of parents, students, teachers, and other reformers to come together in support of giving disadvantaged kids the options they deserve. There's frequent talk of how the school choice debate no longer falls along traditional ideological lines -- of how courageous Democrats are embracing charters, vouchers, and other reforms for low-income kids. Last week was proof positive of the turning tide.

Few states showcased the shifting dynamics in the world of education reform more than Colorado. With Democratic leadership in the capital city, the statehouse, and a majority of the state's Congressional seats, you'd expect anything but unanimity in support of an issue traditionally dominated by Republicans. But many Colorado Democrats know what's being understood by others across the country: no comprehensive plan for reforming our nation's most struggling schools can be complete without the inclusion of expanded educational options.

Rep. Jared Polis -- for whom an embrace of reform is not new -- began founding charter schools years ago and last week editorialized in strong support of a host of public school choice measures. And Denver Mayor Michael Hancock joined Governor John Hickenlooper in signing official proclamations in recognition of the week.

But it's hard not to forget Polis's forceful rebuke of the highly successful D.C. voucher program last spring, or Hancock's backpedaling on his support for private choice during last year's mayoral campaign. And there's been hope by education advocates that Hickenlooper will make choice more of a focal point of his administration as its second year begins.

It's easy to say the right things when the wind is at your back, and you can share the spotlight with peers and like-minded national figures. But when the rubber hits the road, we need to be able to count on Colorado's Democratic leaders to stand up for kids by embracing all options.

Polis should ask Democratic colleagues like Rep. Daniel Lipinski of Illinois and Sen. Dianne Feinstein in California, both of whom favor the D.C. Opportunity Scholarship Program and, in the case of the latter, has never faced questions of loyalty from liberals. In little more than the past half-decade, Democrats from five states have supported private school choice measures. And there are more Democratic mayors in favor of the issue than there is room on this page (including former D.C. mayors Anthony Williams and Adrian Fenty, former mayor John Norquist in Milwaukee, and Newark's Cory Booker, just to name a few).

With the conclusion of National School Choice Week cannot come leaders on the left who are now fearful in the months and years ahead to say the same things they were saying just days ago. For so many, it's a calculus based not on ideology but on politics. So common is the private refrain from Democrats that they support private choice, yet public pressure from special interests scares away any such similarly public proclamations.

The onus to change that reality lies in two camps. First is among the many in the reform community who place partisanship over hopes of broadening the coalition. Ideological rigidity cannot stand in the way of best options for kids, and an embrace of a pol from the other side far outweighs thousands more children failing to succeed as a result of unfair circumstances.

Second, though, is with Democrats who must shed their fear of reproach from campaign coffers and a largely reform-averse establishment. What may hurt one candidate in an upcoming election will lay the groundwork for a new generation of bipartisanship that gives low-income children access to as many options as possible.

That was true last week, and it's true the other 51 weeks of the year, too.

Malcom Glenn is the National Director of Communications at the American Federation for Children and the Alliance for School Choice. He is the coauthor of the School Choice Yearbook 2011-12, which was released last week.

 

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