Esau Democrats

Selling their birthright for NEA contributions

Issue: "Forbes: Right on the money," Nov. 8, 1997

It might surprise some world readers to know how fond I am of the Democratic Party. My favorite 19th-century presidents, Andrew Jackson and Grover Cleveland, were Democrats. My favorite historian of the early 20th century, Claude Bowers, was a Democrat. Those within the "party of the common man" used to orate against special interests and mean it.

How the mighty have fallen! Contributions from the National Education Association, the powerful union that lobbies to protect public-school teaching jobs, seem to be keeping many Democrats from backing what many of their common-man constituents, both black and white, want. One recent poll by the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies, a leading black think tank in Washington, showed nearly 60 percent of blacks (up 10 percent over the past year) favoring government-funded tuition vouchers to help pay for private education. Blacks aged 26 to 35 showed an 86 percent approval rate.

Democrats who have not sold their heritage for some union stew are increasingly speaking out for vouchers of various kinds. I recently had the privilege to speak in Atlanta at the Christian Coalition's annual conference alongside Alveda King, the niece of Martin Luther King Jr. She is promoting a plan to give low-income families government-paid scholarships they could use at any school. So is Wisconsin State Rep. Polly Williams, who ran Jesse Jackson's campaigns in her state.

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Democratic U.S. Senators Joe Lieberman of Connecticut and Mary Landrieu of Louisiana revived the better traditions of their party when they stood up to Ted Kennedy and pushed for federally paid scholarships in the District of Columbia. Lieberman/Landrieu stated-in good Democratic fashion-that "we already have de facto educational choice in this country; it's just limited to those who can afford it. The question we now face is whether we make that kind of choice available to the children who need it the most, or whether we continue to deny them that opportunity out of fear of upsetting the status quo. This is a basic question of fairness-the value with which the Democratic Party has been most closely associated."

The educational choice coalition is growing, with Democrats who are unwilling to sell their birthright joining in. So are those looking for ways to improve education while controlling runaway educational costs. As World readers know, inner-city church schools generally do a much better job than government schools, with students from the same socioeconomic backgrounds, at a much lower cost. For how long can Esau Democrats stand up against the strengthening tide?

For not much longer, I suspect and hope, if advocates of educational choice adopt a strategy aimed at emphasizing opportunities for the poor. I don't like paying over $10,000 in tuition so three of my children can go to a Christian school, but through God's grace I can afford it now. I don't think it's fair that I have to pay a double portion, both taxes and tuition, for schooling, but that unfairness does not harm my children. My financial problem, and that of millions of middle-class Christians, is not the kind about which Democrats traditionally like to orate.

But compare our situation with the plight of poor parents and children, particularly those in the inner city who face the worst schools that government money can buy. As long as we let Esau Democrats label education vouchers subsidies for those who could afford church or private schools anyway, they will continue to demagogue this subject. But if we place the spotlight on inner-city schools and talk about the need for those trapped parents and children to have a choice, then we ratchet up the pressure on Democrats who remember their party's heritage.

We may have to put the general question of vouchers on the back burner temporarily in order to concentrate on building a political alliance that will liberate inner-city children. Putting vouchers on "simmer" will also enable us to give more thought to their riskiness. For good reason, many Christians fear that entanglement with the government will bring requests and eventually demands to start doing things the government way.

Would looking beyond vouchers to a system of educational tax credits, so that federal officials never get their hands on the money and thus have less opportunity to exert their will, help to minimize that threat of interference? That's an issue for discussion over the next several years. And in the meantime, those of us who can afford Christian schools may need to sacrifice our own interests in order to emphasize those of poor children and garner co-belligerents from among the true democrats.

Marvin Olasky
Marvin Olasky

Marvin is editor in chief of WORLD News Group and the author of more than 20 books, including The Tragedy of American Compassion. Follow Marvin on Twitter @MarvinOlasky.


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