Politics & Policy

Be Proudly Pro-Choice, Dems

The new civil-rights movement.

Democrats missed a real opportunity during the July 23 CNN/YouTube debate to declare themselves proudly pro-choice. Not on abortion — the issue “choice” is a code word for in their parts — but on education.

During the unconventional debate, Delaware senator Joseph Biden could have easily done it. He’s been an advocate for giving poor families the same opportunities the wealthier have, to move their kids out of failing public schools and into private schools.

Unfortunately his admirable position wasn’t at all clear during the debate. Answering a questioner who asked if candidates would send their children to public or private school, Biden sounded positively apologetic. He responded that his two sons went to private Wilmington Friends School, where his sister taught, after his wife and daughter were killed in a car accident. When it came time for high school, he sent the boys to a Catholic school; he said, “I’m a practicing Catholic — it was very important to me they go to a Catholic school, and they went to Catholic school.”

Biden should be proud of the choice he made, and this came through somewhat when he talked about high school — but he retreated from that when he ended his answer with what seemed to be a misplaced mea culpa: “My kids would not have gone to that school were it not for the fact that my wife and daughter were killed and my two children were under the care of my sister who drove them to school every morning.”

Perhaps it was the stress of the moment, the personal nature of the question. For on the Senate floor, Biden has seen the American education landscape more clearly: “When you have an area in the country — and most often here we are talking about inner cities — where the public schools are abysmal or dysfunctional or not working and where most of the children have no way out, it is legitimate to ask what would happen to the public schools with increased competition from private schools and what would happen to the quality of education for the children who live there.”

He’s right to embrace alternatives for Americans of all income brackets. School choice, studies find, raises graduation rates, and — as Jay Greene of the Manhattan Institute has pointed out — “result in higher test scores for both the kids who use them and the kids who remain in public schools.”

Supporting school choice is, frankly, a populist position. Most Democrats would have taken it by now if they weren’t so beholden to teachers’ unions and other liberal pressure groups.

It’s a position you’d think Barack Obama should be taking — heralding a message of empowerment and civil rights. But in that same debate, the Illinois senator explained: “My kids have gone to the University of Chicago Lab School, a private school, because I taught there, and it was five minutes from our house. So it was the best option for our kids.” Makes sense to me. But he, too, sounded defensive for absolutely no reason. He went on to explain that “there are some terrific public schools in Chicago that they could be going to. The problem is that we don’t have good schools, public schools, for all kids.”

Which is why, Senator Obama, families should have the choice — public or private. But not a week before, Obama was bashing school vouchers at the National Education Association’s annual convention, referring to them as “abandoning” public schools.

Alveda C. King, niece of Martin Luther King Jr., has pointed out that “some children receive a better education than others due to their parents’ abilities to pay for benefits that are often missing in public schools. This inequity is a violation of the civil rights of the parents and children who are so afflicted by lack of income and by the mismanagement endemic to so many of the country’s public school systems.”

In The Audacity of Hope, Barack Obama, after quoting Alveda King’s uncle, wrote: “When we as a society pretend that poor children will fulfill their potential in dilapidated, unsafe schools with outdated equipment and teachers who aren’t trained in the subjects they teach, we are perpetrating a lie on these children, and on ourselves.” He ought to look at the numbers — including the test scores. The statistics have made other liberal Democrats (like Senator Dianne Feinstein of California and Governor Eliot Spitzer of New York) take a look at school choice. It’s the new civil-rights movement, and the Democrats should all embrace it — for the children.

© 2007, Newspaper Enterprise Assn.

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