The Blog

Silencing Voices for School Choice

Attorney General Eric Holder tries to kill a TV ad supporting D.C. school vouchers.

12:00 AM, Oct 27, 2009 • By SHERYL BLUNT
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Secretary Arne Duncan said in an email through a Department of Education spokesman that while "this Administration is devoting more resources and supports more ambitious reform of our public school systems than any Administration in history," he believes that "vouchers are not the solution to America's educational challenges. Taking a tiny percentage of the kids out of the public school system and putting them in private schools is not the answer. We need to be more ambitious. We need to fix all of our schools."

The program's defenders have signaled that the ad campaign is just getting started, and that more hard-hitting ads are on the way.

The National Education Association (NEA), the American Federation of Teachers (AFT) and People for the American Way have been waging a massive campaign to try to kill the voucher program, which they say takes money and focus away from public schools and is discriminatory.

"Vouchers are not real education reform," wrote the NEA's Director of Government Relations Diane Shust in a June letter to U.S. Senators. "Pulling children out of the public school system doesn't solve problems--it ignores them."

But in a revealing 2006 comment to the Washington Post, Washington Teachers Union President George Parker (whose parent union is the AFT) explained what really worries the teachers unions, and why children must not be allowed to leave D.C.'s troubled public schools.

"The landscape has changed. Our parents are voting with their feet," Parker said. "As kids continue leaving the system, we will lose teachers. Our very survival depends on having kids in D.C. schools so we'll have teachers to represent."

More candid teachers' union moments came this summer when the NEA's former General Counsel Bob Chanin addressed the group's national convention.

"Despite what some among us would like to believe it is not because of our creative ideas; it is not because of the merit of our positions; it is not because we care about children; and it is not because we have a vision of a great public school for every child," Chanin proclaimed. "[The] NEA and its affiliates are effective advocates because we have power. And we have power because there are more than 3.2 million people who are willing to pay us hundreds of millions of dollars in dues each year." To which Chanin received a standing ovation.

Chanin also told delegates that anti-union sentiment was "the price we pay for success."

The price the teacher's unions and their members were willing to pay to ensure their presidential candidate's success was steep. In August of 2008 the NEA announced a $50 million election campaign plan to elect Obama by targeting swing states.

According to the Center for Responsive Politics, Obama received $22.9 million from individuals affiliated with the "Education Industry" during the 2008 election cycle alone. That's a whopping $21.1 million more than Sen. John McCain received from the same industry. These donations came predominately from individuals--many of whom are teachers' union members--employed by educational institutions, colleges and schools. Teacher's unions spent millions more dollars on independent expenditures on Obama's behalf that is not even included in these figures.

Prior to his election, then-Illinois state Sen. Obama acknowledged that political realities meant that candidates cannot always answer or act from the heart.

Asked by Chicago Tribune writer David Mendell whether it might have been wiser to spend hundreds of millions of dollars improving Chicago's troubled public schools rather than on Millennium Park, Obama replied: "How do you really expect me to answer that? If I told you how I really felt, I'd be committing political suicide right here in front of you."

Sheryl Henderson Blunt is a Phillips Foundation Journalism Fellow.