Achilles Heel: Education and the Democratic Party

Education is particularly relevant at the moment, given Governor Glendening’s plans to shore up support by “spending his way to November,” as the Baltimore Sun puts it. Much of this largess will be focused on the public schools. The high stakes involved in education are also apparent in the gutting and/or dilution of the two most important school-reform bills in recent memory.

The first, enabling legislation permitting the creation of charter schools, was in mid-March postponed by a House Ways and Means subcommittee for “further study” over the summer. This was not because the bill had since its inception become hopelessly weakened in order to avoid union ire (which it had). No. The bill was referred to study to ensure that it met all the requirements for federal funding. Not the sort of motives likely to assure charter-school supporters that serious legislation will be forthcoming next year.

The other bill is still on course. It would allow donors to take a $50 state income-tax credit for donations made to non-profits providing scholarships to low-income kids to attend private schools. This almost laughably modest bill has already drawn opposition from the ACLU. H.B. 1075’s passage is far from assured, despite its having already been eviscerated to appease special interests.

The question is, why? In a year when the Schaefer Center for Public Policy’s annual statewide opinion poll shows that K-12 education ranks as Marylanders’ second most important priority, why have two nobly intentioned bills so sadly disappointed expectations?

Within conservative circles, the Democratic party is considered a wholly owned subsidiary of the teachers’ unions. In 1996, the National Education Association (NEA) sent 405 delegates to the Democratic convention, the single-largest special-interest bloc.

A few days ago, as I prepared to testify at a legislative hearing on the tax-credit bill, I whiled away some time chatting with one of the bill’s Republican sponsors. I asked why the credit threshold had been lowered from $500 in the original version to $50. He replied that the legislation would otherwise have cost the state too much in lost revenue. I pointed out that Arizona’s similar tax-credit legislation, set at $500, had ensured budget neutrality by reducing appropriations to the state education department by $500 for every credit taken. He shook his head. “That’ll never get by the Democrats.”

No doubt he was right. This is sad. It is also shortsighted. In its unswerving obedience to teachers’ union demands, the Democratic party in Maryland will set in motion a chain of events that in the long run will harm the party’s interests while at the same time failing to preserve the monopoly education status quo.

GOP gubernatorial candidate Ellen Sauerbrey’s 1994 success in all but the state’s three most developed subdivisions demonstrates the obvious: Democrats are utterly dependent on urban votes. This said, the public education edifice so steadfastly defended by the Democrats is what is driving Marylanders out of the center cities in droves. Once in the suburbs, those former city residents who for years registered as Democrats find no particularly compelling reason to stick with the same party.

Since Mrs. Sauerbrey’s slim defeat in 1994, the GOP has claimed 67,000 newly registered voters; the Democrats, just 23,000. The trend is clear. It will not be reversed any time soon. And unlike the Democrats, the Republicans owe precisely nothing to the teachers’ unions.

As the Democratic majority on the House Ways and Means Committee sits down to ponder charter schools this summer, it would do well to remember this. Every delay in reforming education, every surrender to special-interest lobbying, drives voters out of the city. And into Republican arms.

– Ed.
[No author given], “Marylanders Want Safety, Top Schools,” (Baltimore) Sun, March 15, 1998, p. 1F; Myron Lieberman, The Teacher Unions (New York, N.Y.: Free Press, 1997); Barry Rascovar, “Glendening Is Spending His Way to November,” (Baltimore) Sun, March 1, 1998, p. 3F; C. Fraser Smith, “GOP Adds More Voters to Rolls,” (Baltimore) Sun, March 15, 1998, p. 1A.
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Posted in: Education, News Series