ELLIOT: School choice issue shows cracks in Democratic monolith

Madeline Gray—North State Journal
Democratic nominee for lieutenant governor Linda Coleman

A very interesting thing happened last week in the aftermath of the debate between Lt. Gov. Dan Forest, a Republican, and his Democratic challenger, Linda Coleman.The debate itself showed fairly down-the-line platform politics, including the issue of K-12 schools. Forest has been a champion for school choice; Coleman, a former district school teacher, says that public schools in North Carolina are “being dismantled,” a standard liberal claim. She also proposed cutting the number of charter schools allowed in North Carolina to just 100. Currently the maximum is set at 167; next year it rises to 180. “Choice is good, but it’s not something we should have to pay for,” Coleman said.Taxpayers — and voters — may have other ideas. Under pressure from school choice advocates, Coleman had to back off closing some 67 schools, saying she would only work to close those that are “low-performing.” (No word on whether she supports closing low-performing district schools, or whether that principle applies only to charters.)In a revealing quote, she said she wouldn’t close the other schools because “I am never in favor of people losing their jobs, never.” So in response to a concern about parents losing the ability to send students to schools they believe are best able to educate them, Coleman focused on the teachers and administrators rather than students and their parents. The quote is illuminating because it seems to be an increasingly larger problem for elected Democrats and their allies — they genuinely believe that school systems exist to provide jobs for teachers, rather than to educate children. Teachers are the single most important input into a successful system of public education. But students are the point of the system and its reason for being. Advocates for district-only public schools are a dwindling group, and seem largely limited to Democrats who need to keep their traditional coalition together for electoral purposes. Democrats are trying to maintain the façade that support for anything other than district schools amounts to turning one’s back on public education. That talking point may work with some voters, but increasingly it isn’t flying with parents of school-aged children.Forest hinted at this problem for the left in the debate, when he said that school choice is “something that parents in North Carolina demand — but especially (something) parents of minority students absolutely demand.”Recent research by SurveyUSA shows why Democrats should be worried. In the poll of North Carolina African Americans, the survey found that 59 percent favor school choice. Even more troubling for Democrats, that support dropped just 7 percentage points — still a majority — even when limited to opportunity scholarships (vouchers) and presented with a choice that described them as scholarships that “take away” from public schools.Considering all the other issues affecting voters, it is more likely that elected Democrats will soften their opposition to school choice than that black voters will suddenly start voting Republican. Some politicians already have. State Sen. Ben Clark, a black legislator who represents rural Cumberland and Hoke counties, has said public funds should be used to support K-12 education “by all available means, whether in a traditional public school, public charter school or private school.” And Charlotte Rep. Kelly Alexander Jr. said that school choice resonates because “African American parents want and deserve quality educational choices for their children.”Some legislators are listening to their constituents. Legislators who represent districts with high black populations have been the first to come around, and in some cases, they have been for school choice for years. But statewide candidates, including Coleman, face a different electorate. If they shift on the issue, politically moderate and conservative district-school teachers, who on the margin may have been voting for Democrats due to their support for district schools, will no longer have that tie to the Democratic candidate. Such is the fragile nature of coalition politics.