Progressive to Progressive: Scare Tactics Won't Work
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  • Dec 19 2014

Progressive to Progressive: Scare Tactics Won’t Work

Anyone who’s ever worked in politics can tell you it’s far easier to be against something than to be for something.

When I was a carefree 20-something working as the Communications Director for the Indiana Democratic Party, I helped craft and deliver opposition messaging that helped a number of Democrats prevail on Election Day.

It was thrilling to land those blows, but I lacked the perspective that comes with life experience.

No matter how old you are, there’s very little that transforms you faster than bringing a child into the world. Read all the books you like, but words cannot adequately describe the mix of joy and terror you feel when a doctor says congratulations and hands over your very own tiny human being.

I would argue until my last breath that decisions about a child’s education are the most important decisions any parent can make. Sadly, there are those in my party who do not believe parents should be making those decisions at all unless they are wealthy enough to dodge the status quo.

From that moment, you are responsible for making sure that helpless little creature grows up healthy, safe, and able to succeed in the real world, which suddenly seems much scarier than it did the day before.

There are so many choices to be made.

I would argue until my last breath that decisions about a child’s education are the most important decisions any parent can make. Sadly, there are those in my party who do not believe parents should be making those decisions at all unless they are wealthy enough to dodge the status quo.

Imagine my surprise when I read a blog post earlier this year from a prominent Democratic attorney who opposes school choice but extolled the virtues of his own Catholic school education, making sure to point out that it was paid for by his father.

The implied message: If you’ve got the cash, you can step outside the system. The rest of you get what you get.

I can’t imagine a statement further out of line with the core values of the Democratic Party. And it’s not surprising that our knee-jerk political reaction to school choice has translated into a loss of credibility on the issue of education.

A national poll out last week showed that two years ago, voters trusted Democrats more with education issues by a 26-point margin. This fall, that number had dwindled to just 5 percent.

Far too often, when Democrats talk about schools, we talk about money. The debate is framed as traditional public schools versus everything else. Charter and private schools, especially religious schools, have become the enemy. Vouchers are portrayed as taking valuable funding away from the institutions that have counted on that money for decades. Unfortunately, the conversation rarely includes the most important stakeholders: parents and students.

If you ask those folks whether they like the idea of being able to pick the school that best meets their needs, the answer is a resounding yes. A poll earlier this year showed more than 60 percent of Americans support charter schools and school vouchers that help students access private schools that might otherwise be out of reach.

Recently, a progressive website circulated a cartoon video featuring “Little Timmy” and his quest to protect his public school from a big, bad charter school group. It included all the usual rhetorical arguments against profits and Corporate America.

Here’s the thing: Little Timmy’s public school may be a perfect fit for Little Timmy. And that’s fantastic. But what about Little Amy, who’s being bullied at her school and needs to get out? Or Little Nicholas, who should be in a classroom with a teacher trained to help him with his learning disability? Or Little Elizabeth, who requires a flexible school schedule because she works during the day to help pay the bills at home?

Our kids aren’t all the same, yet there are those on my side of the aisle—and on the other side, as well—who believe our education policy should treat students like lemmings instead of individuals.

The good news is that parents are speaking up, questioning whether geographically assigned schools are the right fit for their kids and seeking options. This generation of students will grow up with choices in education just like they have choices in every other part of their lives.

Moreover, increasingly Democratic policymakers are speaking up in support of school choice. Some of school choice’s strongest advocates hail from the left: U.S. Sen. Cory Booker, New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo, Oklahoma State Sen. Jabar Shumate and Tennessee State Rep. John DeBerry.

As a progressive Democrat who believes a quality education should be available to every child regardless of income or geography, I believe in school choice as an equalizer.

And I know the anti-choice scare tactics won’t work long-term because parents don’t look at their kids as little bundles of money guaranteed for 12 years to a particular building or system.

Ultimately, choice will prevail because more and more people will realize that schools aren’t entitled to our kids. Our kids are entitled to great schools that are suitable to their needs and chosen by their parents.

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