TCS Daily

Valuing Education, Vouching for Justice

By Ryan H. Sager - November 23, 2004 12:00 AM

"Democrats have values. They value things. Universal health care is a value, isn't it?" Welcome to the Democratic Party platform for 2006 and 2008 -- bear in mind, it's a work in progress.

They still haven't figured out that there's one blindingly obvious issue that could help them turn it all around. President Bush even dangled it in front of their collective noses just last week.

Let me explain.

Right after the election, everyone knew one thing: Democrats had lost on "values," whatever the heck those might be. How can Democrats get their hands on some values? That's the question now. They can talk about God more, some say, let people know they're totally down with J.C. Others say the Democrats should start framing their agenda in distinctly value-ish terms, somehow convince Americans that low taxes are decadent and immoral.

Well, the donkeys are notoriously stubborn. Nonetheless, they're on the right track. What they have yet to realize, though, is that they can sermonize and reframe until their faces turn blue, but a superficial makeover isn't going to make too many states turn blue. They need to start readjusting the substance of their agenda as well as the style.

They're in luck. There's an issue out there that could help them turn things around. It's deeply important to cultural conservatives and church goers in both parties. It also appeals tremendously to black and Hispanic voters and fits in seamlessly with the Democratic Party's core value: social justice.

The issue is school choice -- vouchers to help poor kids escape failed public schools in the inner cities, and charter schools to allow urban educators to try innovative approaches to teaching the toughest students.

Republicans have long owned the issue of school choice, at least at the national level. But Bush has done his worst to leave an opening for the Democrats here. In his first term, he signed the No Child Left Behind law, which did little or nothing to promote school choice. And now, in the past week, he has appointed an education secretary, Margaret Spellings, who is known to be all-but-hostile to vouchers and charter schools.

If Democrats had any sense, they would see that now is the time to strike -- hitting Bush from the left and the right at the same time on a values-laden domestic issue.

Now, national Democrats have traditionally been very skittish about adopting a strong stance on school choice. They don't want to anger the teachers unions, which have a lot of money and a lot of manpower. And they don't want to enrage the party's secular fundamentalists, who blanch at the idea of poor black and Hispanic kids being taught by nuns in Catholic schools -- even though (and maybe particularly because) it would be their parents' choice to send them there.

But where the Democrats see a potential crisis, they're blind to an opportunity. They could do worse than to upset the secular extremists in their own party and make them try to explain what's so terrible about kids getting a religious education -- which, for many of these kids, would be a step up, insomuch as they'd be getting an education at all. And if putting children's education above petty pandering to powerful unions isn't a "value," then what is?

All the national Democrats would have to do is follow their braver colleagues at the state and local levels. It was Wisconsin state representative Polly Williams, a black Democrat, who fought to create the nation's first pilot voucher program. The newly elected Democratic senator from Colorado, Ken Salazar, who's Hispanic, supported school vouchers for kids in Denver as attorney general of that state. Mayor Tony Williams of Washington, D.C., gave his support to school vouchers in his city and likely secured their passage in Congress.

These brave Democrats faced grave political risk in taking on the all-powerful teachers unions, but they lived to tell the tale because parents in their communities were sick of not having choices. Recent national opinion polls have shown black support for vouchers around 60 percent and Hispanic support in excess of 70 percent. That's no accident.

As the Democratic Party looks to rebuild itself nationally -- and, by the way, to shore up its black and Hispanic base, which the Republicans have begun to erode significantly -- it might want to remember just how much parents (a.k.a. voters) value their kids' education.

Ryan Sager is a member of the editorial board of The New York Post. He also edits the blog Miscellaneous Objections and can be reached at


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