School choice skirmishes in Democratic primaries

It’s primary season in statehouses nationwide, and that means that teacher unions will pit Democrat against Democrat by using the support of school vouchers as a wedge.

Teacher unions will pit Democrat against Democrat by using the support of school vouchers as a wedge.

An unexpected reminder of that came last week in the Wisconsin Democratic recall primary campaign for governor. The Wisconsin Education Association recently distributed a mailer claiming that Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett wanted to expand the Milwaukee Parental Choice Program. The union supports Barrett’s opponent in the primary, and is now using a story from seven years ago claiming that Mayor Barrett supported raising the enrollment cap on the voucher program.

Barrett said then that he was willing to back the cap increase in exchange for more money for all public schools, and he has since repeatedly expressed alarm over the voucher program’s cost to local taxpayers. But that’s beside the point for the union and enough to force Barrett to spend energy on the campaign trail defending his support for public education.

This strategy has worked before. A Democratic candidate for Florida Senate named Terry Fields spent weeks addressing his past support for the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship before ultimately losing a primary campaign against an opponent backed by the Florida Education Association. Both were seeking to represent an impoverished community in Jacksonville, where thousands of students benefit from the voucher. Before his loss, Fields meekly added that he wouldn’t support expanding the program with the Florida economy in doldrums.

Also in Florida, the 2010 Democratic primary for Florida’s attorney general led to a skirmish over vouchers, with the losing candidate, Dave Aronberg, stumbling to explain his past support over the tax credit scholarship program while he was in the state Senate. After the loss, Aronberg withdrew his future support for the program.

Other examples in the Sunshine State followed, and as the primary season this year got underway, more Democrats backed away from a voucher program they once embraced. That’s troubling for a voucher movement that repeatedly boasts of the bipartisan support it does manage to get.

Democrats who support private school options will need to find their resolve and better communicate why vouchers figure into their guiding principles. If they don’t, their opponents will mock those principles and the political viability of private school choice will suffer.

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