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Ask Auntie Pinko
January 22, 2004

Dear Auntie Pinko,

Many of my friends are conservatives who make the case that although vouchers may not be the complete answer to what ails our public schools, it is at least a fresh idea with some perhaps limited promise. Same argument about charter schools. I desperately want to throw some Democratic ideas back at them to show that my party is not totally bereft of fresh thinking on this subject but I don't really know of anything the party is promoting.

Seems to me that the plight of inner city schools is so bad that some truly revolutionary thinking may be required. Something that goes beyond increasing the budget. Do the Democrats have any such ideas up their sleeves?

Thanks for your thoughts!

Louisville, KY

Dear John,

Neither vouchers nor charter schools are the exclusive property of the GOP. There are Democrats who advocate for each of these ideas, and, indeed, some of the more innovative charter schools programs (check out Minnesota's for instance) have been the product of creative thinkers from both parties. And many people who have no particular self-identification with either party feel strongly about these issues, as well.

I think where the confusion enters is, as usual, in the details. Some debaters automatically equates strong support for a commitment to making public schools truly functional, with being anti-voucher and/or anti-charter schools. Since one thing that appears high on the list of talking points for many Democratic candidates and elected officials is this very commitment, they become (almost by default) labeled "anti-" vouchers or charter schools. And indeed, many are. But so are a good many members of the GOP.

It seems to break down into two main groups: I think of them as the 'either/ors' and the 'either/boths.' Within each of those main groups there are many subsections of widely varied opinions and approaches.

The 'either/or' group sees the commitment of public resources to education as being (or needing to be) limited by many constraints. A zero-sum-game where if you need money from project A, you have to take money from project B to pay for it. What this means in terms of education funding is that if you spend money on a vouchers program or a charter schools program, it will have to come from the budget of the already-struggling public schools.

The 'either/both' group, on the other hand, sees the commitment to education funding as open-ended (within reason,) and believes that it should be possible to both improve public schools where needed, and provide options and alternatives. Such options would be especially useful to prevent children from being denied a decent education while the needy schools are improved.

I think there are Democrats and Republicans in both of these groups, but there do seem to be more Republicans in the first group, and more Democrats in the second group.

Auntie Pinko has studied the Democratic Party platforms at local, state, and the national level for some time, and if I may be permitted the presumption to summarize their general tone into a generic "Democratic Party position on K-12 education," it would be this:

Democrats, by and large, believe that every American child has an absolute right to a decent education. Each child should have a safe, functional, welcoming public school, capable of providing a good quality education, convenient to where they live. In addition, there should be a full array of options available to children whose individual needs cannot be met by such schools - options that are accessible and affordable to all children who need them, even the poorest.

Now, if the quality of those public schools is generally good; if they are safe, welcoming places, with curricula and teachers who can accommodate a wide array of learning styles and ordinary needs, the need for costlier special alternatives can be kept relatively low. But if the quality of those schools is allowed to deteriorate, then suddenly the level of 'need' for alternatives will balloon (as it has.)

So, is the best option at this point:

A. To shift education spending and effort from the public schools to various alternatives, ultimately rendering the public school system less and less adequate and viable;

B. To not shift education spending and effort from the public schools, offering no alternatives, while we pursue a program of change and improvement that may take decades, while many children suffer from poor quality education; or

C. To increase the effort and spending on education and both vigorously pursue a program of rescuing public schools to achieve the ideal outlined above, AND offer alternatives to ensure that today's children don't suffer from inadequate education?

Options A and B are the either/or approach. If you're a Republican hellbent on making sure that no billionaire is left behind in a program of lavish tax cuts and business subsidies, of course you don't have the money to consider "C." And if you're a Democrat hellbent on getting re-elected even at the cost of endorsing dead-end public policy and ignoring the terrible burdens of debt and inadequate public services we're loading on our children, of course you don't have the guts to consider "C."

But there are plenty of Democrats who are saying, loudly and clearly, that there are worse fates than repealing lopsided tax cuts and/or reforming the tax system. And there are plenty of Democrats with good ideas for how to deliver on the promise of a quality education for every child. Auntie Pinko suggests a little time with Mr. Google's search engine to find the ones that appeal to you most, John, and thanks for writing!

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