Suburbs Hold Key to Resolving Democratic Party’s Tensions over School Choice

On paper, the Democratic Party and huge swaths of black and Hispanic families craving better school options for their kids have been on a collision course for years. This isn’t a new phenomenon, and there are two primary reasons the big crash has never materialized in the catastrophic ways that reasonable people would have assumed were likely.

Reason one: The Democratic Party doesn’t care. Given the choice between deep-pocketed and well-organized teacher unions and black and Hispanic voters, it has historically been a pretty easy decision. (Helped in large part by point #2 below.) Teachers unions put boots on the streets in key electoral districts (when is the last time an urban center was considered a “key electoral district?”); invest large sums of political dollars to support priority elections for the party; and consistently bring their considerable resources to bear in ways which would harm the party if the faucet was ever turned off.

Reason two: The Democratic Party doesn’t have to care. The opposing party has done a perfectly fine job portraying itself as a party hostile to the broader interests of these same black and Latino voters. Sure, there are plenty of Republicans who loudly support empowering parents with school choice, but they are still boosted by a party which expresses vocal disdain for the kinds of government supports on which many of these urban voters depend to keep their families intact.

With Republicans attacking them from the right, the pressure is off for Democrats to have to realistically and effectively deal with the situation. All we Dems have to do is constantly remind black and Latino voters how bad the Republicans are for them and our hands are essentially washed of the “collision-course” problem. These black and Latino urban voters will continue to support the lesser-of-two-evils and the Democratic Party doesn’t have to have any awkward conversations with the NEA or the AFT. Win-win.

So, does all this mean the school choice movement has hit a dead-end? Hardly. And it doesn’t even mean the Democratic Party is so thrilled about having to be on the wrong side of an issue which is so important to such a large part of its most reliable base. The Democratic Party’s transactional stances against issues like school choice just adds fuel to the perception that the party is captive to special interests and doesn’t stand for anything.

There is a lever which could be pulled to change all of this.

As we’ve seen with the considerable resistance which has emerged to the Common Core nationwide, the real political power in this country rests in suburbia. (No cul-de-sac left behind … ) If the nation’s soccer moms suddenly found themselves fighting on the same side as urban black and Latino momma bears, the political calculation for the Democratic Party would suddenly get a lot more complicated. (Again, look at how complicated things have gotten for the NEA and AFT over the whole Common Core issue. “We support the standards, but have major, major problems with the implementation” really means “Damn, we asked for the Common Core but we don’t like all this talk about evaluating teachers based on student performance and this was the best line our beltway consultants could come up with to get us out of this jam.”)

Renowned organizer and author Saul Alinsky used to say political revolutions happen when age-old stalemates between the “haves” and the “have-nots” gets tipped when the “have-a-little, want more’s” decide to side with the “have-nots.” I suspect we are looking at a similar dynamic in education politics.

The obvious problem here is suburban families already have school choice. They chose their communities in no small part because of the perceived value of the local schools. That doesn’t mean they are thrilled with what they are getting out of the experience. We know they shell out big bucks for tutors to help their kids re-learn what they were supposed to learn in school. Could they be convinced that they, too, stand to benefit from expanded school choice? Will technology play a role?

This is hard stuff to get your head around. For those of us who do this work because of our deep concern for the way the deck is stacked against the “have nots,” we probably should start getting used to the idea that winning the hearts and minds of suburban soccer moms and dads is going to be the best way to win the political fight once and for all.

I suspect that the Democratic Party, looking at school choice in a new light as a solid political winner, would be happy to run with what would be some pretty potent political momentum.

-Joe Williams

Joe Williams is executive director of Democrats for Education Reform. This first appeared on redefinED as part of a series on the Democratic Party’s growing divide over ed reform and ed choice.

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