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You're a Democrat Who Opposes Vouchers. But You Benefited From Private Schools. Are You a Hypocrite?

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Recently, our colleague Alyson Klein looked at whether the 2020 Democratic White House contenders attended public or private schools as children, as well as where they've sent their own children to school. Not all the candidates responded to her inquiries, although we've filled in the gaps on others. We know Joe Biden, Sen. Michael Bennet of Colorado, South Bend, Ind., Mayor Pete Buttigieg, Beto O'Rourke, and Andrew Yang all attended private schools for at least part of their K-12 education. And the children of current candidates like Bennet, John Delaney, and Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand of New York are attending or have attended private schools. 

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To be clear: Not all Democrats in the race have been categorically opposed to all school choice. Bennet, for example, gave some running room to charters (which technically are a type of public school) while he was Denver superintendent. And O'Rourke has spoken about how charter schools can play a positive role in public education. But good luck finding a Democratic 2020 hopeful who would proclaim that he or she likes and wants to expand vouchers, even long-time choice backer Sen. Cory Booker of New Jersey—especially when Democratic bugaboo and school choice champion Betsy DeVos is education secretary. Candidates ranging from Biden and O'Rourke to Sen. Kamala Harris of California and Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts have at one time or another spoken out against them.

So, are Democrats who dislike vouchers but benefited from private schools being unfair? Should they support more access to the choices they or their children experienced? Or is the issue more complicated than that? 

You probably won't be surprised to learn that school choice advocates are eager to point out what they say is pretty straightforward hypocrisy on the part of these Democrats. 

"If they have benefited from having educational options for themselves or their children, they should also support those options for other children," said Tommy Schultz, a spokesman for the American Federation for Children, which supports charters and private schools choice. (At one time, DeVos served as the federation's chairwoman.) "They only want those options for those who can afford it. ... We just find that to be fundamentally unjust."

That argument might resonate with—and be sufficient for—some folks. But it's not necessarily the end of the discussion. 

  • What about a candidate who says his or her main focus is on the traditional public school system that serves roughly eight to nine out of every 10 students? Isn't it fair to focus on the bulk of the nation's K-12 population?
  • As for the accusation of hypocrisy: Imagine a person who supports more equitable and robust public housing, lives in a single-family detached home bought without direct public assistance, and believes that Section 8 vouchers won't solve the nation's housing issues. Is that (roughly) analogous position also hypocritical? If so, why?

We put those questions to Schultz. He responded that while he's not an expert on housing policy, the right to a free education is generally accepted in a way that housing rights are not. (While it's not found in the U.S. Constitution, several state constitutions do codify the right to a public education in some way.) The rules that apply to public housing versus school zones are also different.

He also rejected the idea that candidates who want to come up with policies helping the bulk of students in public schools must by definition be skeptical of or oppose expanding educational options. Schultz pointed to Miami-Dade, the district in Florida under Superintendent Alberto Carvalho that has evolved into a mix of traditional public, magnet, and charter schools, in an area and a state where private school choice programs are also a big piece of the pie. Nearly 70 percent of children in the district do not go to the public school they're zoned to attend, a stat DeVos brought up in a speech a few days ago. (Carvalho was a speaker at the federation's policy summit this year in Chicago, where he was lauded for his decision to have schools thrive on "competition" and not fear it.)

"It would be pretty bold, and I think politically feasible and I think successful, for the children to get access to all these different types of options regardless of their income," Schultz said.

How much does a background in private school matter? It's up for debate. As University of Pennsylvania Professor Jonathan Zimmerman told Alyson for her story, President Barack Obama spent several years attending private schools as a child and sent his own daughters to private school, "but he certainly thought and cared about [public schools]." Yet Tacoma, Wash., teacher Nate Bowling said where candidates send their children to schools is a key sign of what their priorities and values are. 

It's also not necessarily unfair for some politicians, and presidents in particular, to decide that private schools can provide better security for their offspring. The Sidwell Friends School, which Chelsea Clinton and Sasha and Malia Obama have attended, is accustomed to handling those and other logistical issues for the children of Beltway power players. 

We asked Jack Schneider, an assistant professor at the University of Massachusetts, Lowell college of education, if it's not a great look to oppose private school choice yet choose to benefit personally from those schools. 

Schneider, who's argued that public schools have actually done better than many perceive and that choice policies are often problematic, said in the era of DeVos and President Donald Trump, a candidate can get a big boost by sharing just how powerful the traditional public school experience can be. In fact, he said he's surprised at how swiftly being an ally of public education has become a litmus test for many candidates, in the same way that religion often is for presidential contenders who don't want to be seen as "out of step" with much of the nation. 

If a Democrat becomes president and sends his or her children to schools in the Washington area, the decision-making process of where those kids go will be a "minefield" compared to Obama's choice in 2009, he added. As for the housing policy analogy, Schneider pointed out that it doesn't hold up particularly well, since the share and total number of people in public housing, compared to all housing types, is smaller than the corresponding figures for students in traditional public schools. 

"If somebody can tell a compelling personal story about the experience he or she had, or that his or her children had in public school, that's a message that's going to resonate today, in a way that just would not have resonated four years ago, eight years ago, 12 years ago," Schneider said.

One potential twist on this idea comes from Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts. She attended public school in Oklahoma, but one of her favored stories on the 2020 stump is how she knew from a very young age that she wanted to be a teacher. Warren taught students with special needs at a New Jersey public school. 

You can also turn the original question on its head to a certain extent. When Donald Trump Jr. told the Republican National Convention that he wanted all American students to have the same educational opportunities he had, an analysis showed that public schools would in many instances get a huge fiscal windfall if they had the same resources made available to them that his private school (and the private schools of other presidents' children) enjoyed. Some might ask: Why not provide to public schools what children at elite private schools receive?

Schneider added it's not necessarily a big detriment if Democratic candidates attended private schools or enrolled their children there, particularly if they sent their kids to private schools several decades ago when the education politics landscape was different. But those candidates in particular have to make it clear they're against Trump administration education policy, he stressed.

"They'll get a B instead of an A-plus," he said.

Photo: President Barack Obama sent his daughters, Sasha and Malia, to Sidwell Friends School in Washington (below) after the family toured their top choices for schools "to make sure we find the right fit." (AP Photo/Charles Dharapak)


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