Lieberman Was a Leader for School Choice in the Democratic Party

The Connecticut senator championed D.C. scholarships, federal education savings accounts
Sen. Joseph Lieberman (I-CT) during the Republican National Convention at the Xcel Energy Center in Saint-Paul, MN, USA on September 2nd, 2008.
Senator Joseph Lieberman during the Republican National Convention in Saint Paul, Minn., 2008.

Senator Joseph Lieberman of Connecticut, who died last week at age 82, was, for much of the 1990s, one of the most articulate and persistent legislative advocates for school choice.

Lieberman’s death prompted admiring statements from political figures across the spectrum who noted his contributions across a wide range of issues, from civil rights to the environment to national security. It also offers an opportunity to reflect on and celebrate his school-choice-related achievements, some of which are still benefiting millions of American families. Lieberman’s experience as Al Gore’s running mate in 2000, and his subsequent late-career path as a “No Labels” advocate and political independent, also point to the constraints that school choice advocates face within the Democratic Party, where teachers unions have formidable clout.

After initially winning election to the Senate in 1988, Lieberman backed a series of efforts to expand school choice to include private schools. Typically they were means-tested or experimental programs, rather than sweeping universal ones.

For example, in March 1995, Lieberman joined Senator Dan Coats, an Indiana Republican, to introduce the “Low-Income School Choice Demonstration Act of 1995,” which would have appropriated $30 million for between ten and 20 “demonstration projects” to “determine the effects on parents and schools of providing financial assistance to low-income parents to enable such parents to select the public or private schools their children will attend.”

The bill didn’t pass, but Lieberman’s remarks on the Senate floor on introducing the legislation encapsulated the way he saw and communicated about the issue—linked to religious faith, and as a way of helping poor children. “It is clear that the public schools are not working for all students, particularly in our poorest communities. We have a responsibility to seek more effective ways to address the needs of these children,” the senator said.

He went on: “Private school choice opens doors for children in our poorest neighborhoods, where religious schools—particularly Catholic schools—often have had better results than public schools. I have long believed what some research has shown—that the success of parochial schools is in part due to their students’ and teachers’ shared beliefs and strong moral values.”


D.C. Scholarships

In 1997, again working with Coats, Lieberman introduced the District of Columbia Student Opportunity Scholarship Act of 1997. Congress approved it, but President Clinton vetoed it. Eventually, in 2003, the vouchers became law.

There have been ongoing battles over renewing the funding for it, but the program remains in existence today, offering individual scholarship awards of up to $16,070 for high school and up to $10,713  for elementary and middle school. In the 2022–23 school year, 1,707 students used the scholarships. Of those students, 79.8 percent had an “African-American/Black” racial background, and their average family income was $20,572, according to a “fact sheet” available at the program website.

About 12,000 students have been awarded the scholarships over two decades, and survey data show high-school graduation rates, college acceptance rates, and parental satisfaction rates above 90 percent. The Washington Post editorial board has embraced the program as “worthy” and describes the federal funding for it as “well-spent.”

Arguably, the small voucher program has had a positive effect even on the many more students in the traditional DC public schools and charter schools, which, spurred by the threat of the private school scholarship program, upped their game in ways that translated into gains on standardized tests of reading and math. The DC school improvement story has a lot of protagonists—Mayor Adrian Fenty, Chancellors Michelle Rhee and Kaya Henderson—but in a way it’s also a little-noticed legacy of Lieberman.


Federal Education Savings Accounts

In April 1998, Lieberman took to the Senate floor again, this time to speak in favor of a federal education savings account that would have let parents earning less than $160,000 save $2,000 a year in after-tax money tax-free for K–12 expenses, including private school tuition. “At a time when many parents are seeking more choices for their kids, especially for the students who are trapped in failing and unresponsive local schools, this bill would help make private or parochial school a more affordable option for those families who decide that is the best choice for their child, or in some cases, the only chance to get a decent education,” Lieberman said.

Explaining the fierce opposition to the plan, he said, “I fear that our critics are so committed to the noble mission of public education that they have shut their eyes to the egregious failures in some of our public schools and insisted on defending the indefensible. And they are so conditioned to believing that any departure from the one-size-fits-all approach is the beginning of the end for public schools that they refuse to even concede the possibility that offering children a choice could give them a chance at a better life while we are working to repair and reform all of our public schools.”

“Parents increasingly are demanding more choices for their children—be it in the form of public school choice, charter schools, or scholarships for low-income kids to attend a quality private or parochial school. And they are seeking more of a focus on results rather than a defense of the system and all who function in it,” Lieberman said then. “Hopefully we can begin to change the dynamic of what for too long has been a disappointingly dogmatic and unproductive debate on education policy in this country and lay the groundwork for a new bipartisan commitment to putting children first.”

That particular upward adjustment to the contribution limits for Coverdell accounts, named after Senator Paul Coverdell, Republican of Georgia, eventually was enacted in 2001 and took effect in 2002. And the overall concept of tax-advantaged savings for private school expenses was expanded further by the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act of 2017, which allowed Section 529 college savings accounts to be used for K–12 education expenses.


The Vice Presidential Nominee

The paradox of Lieberman’s political career is that his biggest win—the Gore-Lieberman ticket won the popular vote in the 2000 presidential election—was also his biggest loss, as a litigated recount in Florida that went to the Supreme Court concluded in the loss of the state for Gore and Lieberman, and the presidency of George W. Bush. Lieberman’s stint as vice presidential nominee can also be seen as something of a simultaneous high and low for his school choice advocacy.

The policy position was a sign of the independence, bipartisanship, integrity, and swing-voter appeal that helped Lieberman get chosen by Gore to begin with. Lieberman attracted a lot of attention for being a Democratic vice presidential nominee who was a longtime, enthusiastic school choice advocate.

In August 2000, when Gore announced Lieberman as his running mate, there was a burst of attention around the question of whether the ticket would back private school choice. “School voucher foes find Lieberman a vexing choice,” was a Los Angeles Times headline. A spokesman tied the senator’s support for vouchers to Connecticut Catholic schools, not the senator’s own observant Jewish faith. A New York Times opinion piece by Nina Rees, then at the conservative Heritage Foundation, reported Lieberman “has supported at least seven bills to promote school choice since 1992.”

The apparent conflict was resolved, more or less, by Lieberman saying that he’d provide discreet counsel to Gore, but that President Gore would call the shots. That’s typical for a vice presidential nominee, so it’s hard to fault Lieberman too much. Yet in the presidential campaign, the Democrats let Republicans take the advantage on the issue. Private school choice wasn’t among the Democratic policy proposals on education in the 2000 campaign. As the GOP candidate, George W. Bush did propose vouchers as an accountability mechanism for failing public schools. As president, however, Bush abandoned it eventually in negotiations with congressional Democrats over what became the No Child Left Behind Act.


Democrats and Independents

That becoming the Democratic Party’s vice presidential nominee involved Lieberman’s downplaying one of his key domestic policy positions was an indicator of a broader tension between the politician and the party that also involved other issues, such as national security policy. In 2006, when Senator Lieberman faced a primary challenge from Ned Lamont, an antiwar heir to a J.P. Morgan fortune, the state AFL-CIO backed Lieberman, but the teachers unions backed Lamont. Lieberman lost the Democratic primary but won reelection to the Senate as an “independent Democrat.” He kept sponsoring school choice bills but without a lot of Democratic company. For example, on March 16, 2010, a Lieberman amendment to reauthorize the DC opportunity scholarship program failed, 42 to 55. The only Democrats who voted for it were Senators Dianne Feinstein of California, Bill Nelson of Florida, and Mark Warner of Virginia. Of those, only Warner remains in the Senate.

At the time of his death, Lieberman was co-chairing a “No Labels” effort to find a presidential ticket to run against Biden and Trump. Biden, like Lieberman, backed some private school choice legislation as a senator but has shelved it as president. Trump has expressed support for it but didn’t get it done in term one.

Yet perhaps the story of school choice and the Democrats won’t have ended entirely with the passing of Joe Lieberman.

Lieberman had told interviewers repeatedly that he was attracted to politics initially by the promise of John F. Kennedy’s presidency. He wrote his Yale senior thesis about a Connecticut political boss, John Bailey, who helped to deliver the Nutmeg State to Kennedy, and he also worked, early in his career, for Abe Ribicoff, another Connecticut Democrat who served as JFK’s secretary of Health, Education and Welfare.

Some Kennedy family members ardently disavow Robert Kennedy Jr.’s 2024 presidential campaign, but it’s worth noting that RFK Jr. told Bari Weiss last year, “I had a choice of where I was going to send my kids to school, just because I have resources and it, and, you know, all Americans should have that choice.” Kennedy hasn’t made choice a signature issue, but there’s still plenty of time before Election Day.

In its equal-opportunity, unifying way, Kennedy’s comment was an echo of Lieberman’s vision that, as he once said in the Senate, “Lower-income parents who want their kids to learn in a religious environment should have that chance, just as wealthier parents do.” Lieberman did not live to see that vision fully realized, but he helped to bring it closer to reality.

Ira Stoll, a former managing editor of Education Next, writes regularly at The Editors.

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