Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Guess Who Voiced Support for Vouchers Almost a Decade and a Half Ago?

Vice President Joe Biden
(Official Vice Presidential Portrait, 2009)
One of the more disappointing educational developments we've seen since the current presidential administration took over was, of course, the ending of the D.C. Opportunity Scholarship Program back in 2009. And though the program was reauthorized earlier this year, support and funding for the program is always perilous, and the political winds of the day often dictate whether it will be a target, despite its overwhelming success since it was enacted back in 2004.

That's in part why we've been so disappointed about the lack of response from the current crop of Republican presidential candidates to our school choice survey. Though a few have followed up and expressed interest in returning the survey, nobody has made their views public—a worrisome indication to us that we can never rest on our laurels about the future of the program.

Not only can we look to the program's recent history as evidence of the that fact, but going back a decade before reveals just how malleable our elected officials' views on school choice can be over the years.

After all, if the fight over school choice with the president had taken place 14 years ago, there might have been a bit more support at 1600 Pennsylvania Ave.—or, at the very least, at the Naval Observatory.

Yes, that's right...none other than current Vice President Joe Biden has been on record expressing support for school vouchers for low-income kids in failing schools. It was long before the rise of Barack Obama, about mid-way through Biden's multiple runs at the presidency, and it came at a time when there were just a few private school choice programs nationwide.

While digging through the archives this week, we came across a remarkable quote from the then-Delaware Senator that not only expresses support for vouchers, but defends their constitutionality against opponents (many of whom were his intra-party colleagues).

Take a look (emphasis ours):
I have come to the belief that the constitutional issues involved [with school choice] are not as clear cut as opponents have argued. While lower courts have ruled that vouchers used in private religious schools violate the first amendment's prohibition on the establishment of religion, the Supreme Court has not yet weighed in on the question. In fact, the Supreme Court has ruled that State tuition tax credits for private religious school tuition are perfectly constitutional, and the Supreme Court has ruled that Pell grants--vouchers for college students--can be used in private religious colleges without violating the Constitution. . . . Even some liberal constitutional scholars have noted that vouchers to parents and children may be constitutional. 
Even if vouchers were to take money away from the public schools--and I should point out that not all voucher proposals do--that does not in and of itself mean that public schools will be harmed. 
When you have an area of 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. 
The quote is taken from the Congressional Record way back on September 30, 1997. A stark contrast with the rhetoric we're hearing today, huh?

It again reminds us that we can't get comfortable simply because we've had a string of school choice successes across the country this year. People and opinions—and, most importantly, political calculations—change, and so could the future of school choice in the nation's capital.

But it should also give us a glimmer of faith that even some of the most high-profile school choice opponents were once on the right side of the debate, and, perhaps with time, they can find their way there again. And as the Obama Administration continues to buck the status quo and teachers unions on other issues of education reform, maybe they'll find the right path on vouchers, too.

We can "hope," can't we?

- American Federation for Children | Alliance for School Choice, MAG

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