In the early 1990s, I was elected Jersey City’s first Republican mayor in almost a century by a narrow margin. But when I ran for re-election, in this only 6 percent Republican city, I won with 69 percent of the vote, brought in all nine of my city council candidates, and even won five of the city’s eight housing projects.
It was the largest margin of victory in Jersey City’s history and the first time one slate won 100 percent of city council seats. I recall this tidbit of political history because a major reason I won so powerfully was that I was fighting to implement a school voucher program in the city. I wanted to provide poor parents with the same power possessed by wealthier parents to consider private school options for their children.
My efforts to empower the poor with this equality of opportunity caused the National Education Association (NEA) to make me its “Public Enemy No. 1” and national Democratic Party leaders to heap vitriol upon me, precisely as they are doing now to Secretary of Education Nominee Betsy DeVos because of her support for school choice. They thought their attacks would hurt me politically, but all they did was raise the volume of the fight. This ensured that more and more low-income families became aware that I wanted to give them the ability to do what they thought was best for their children, while the NEA and national Democratic leaders wanted to keep them educationally powerless. “He that troubleth his own house shall inherit the wind,” Proverbs says, and by fighting against the fuller educational enfranchisement of the poor, national Democratic leaders did nothing but drive lifelong Democrats to me.
Betsy DeVos has been laboring to expand the educational enfranchisement of the poor for a long time. I served with her in the 1990s and the early 2000s on the boards of Children First America and the Alliance for School Choice, two predecessor organizations of the American Federation for Children, where she continues the good fight today. The Democrats are preparing to attack her because of her years of support for public and private school choice and they think their attacks will hurt her and President Trump. But I’m experiencing a feeling of deja vu all over again and wondering if the Democrats’ attacks on Betsy DeVos and school choice will simply produce a tsunami of reaction when the next national election comes around — one that results in Republicans winning percentages of the minority vote not seen since the post-Civil War years. That was when the Democrats tried, in turn, to block the 13th Amendment (abolishing slavery), the Civil Rights Act of 1866, and the 14th Amendment (providing equal protection under the law). The school choice issue cuts powerfully. It is the civil rights battle of our generation — and history has a way of rolling over those who resist the advancement of social justice.
In the 1990s, even as I fought to have New Jersey implement a pilot voucher program in Jersey City, I also led the fight for statewide charter school legislation and for state tax credits for contributions to K-12 scholarship foundations. In addition, I made proposals, consistent with the standards-based reform movement then taking shape in America, to reform New Jersey’s traditional public schools. These proposals were all opposed by the usual suspects, but the defenders of the status quo were on the wrong side of history. In 1995, we passed charter school legislation in New Jersey. In 2010, I had the pleasure, as New Jersey’s state commissioner of education, of implementing many statewide public education reforms that I’d first proposed more than 15 years before. Now school voucher and scholarship tax credit programs are proliferating throughout the states.
Indeed, even before the November election, public and private school choice programs were being implemented across America at an accelerating pace. Now, with Mr. Trump and Republican congressional leaders committed to expanding school choice, and with pro-school choice Republicans in complete control of the governorship and state legislative bodies in 25 states, we will see federal and state school choice programs initiated or expanded everywhere. Democrats who fight these initiatives will end up driving their own voters to the Republican Party.
Hundreds of millions of dollars in federal research have identified school model elements that dramatically increase student learning (i.e., a longer school day with increased time for instruction). Tragically, problems with the governance system of traditional public schools have made it impossible for them to implement the most powerful research-proven reforms. The expansion of school choice will produce a change in the governance system of traditional public schools that liberates school boards and school leaders to implement school models that hugely increase student learning.
There will come a day when America’s public schools are dramatically better than they are today, and when all Americans, poor as well as rich, can choose from among excellent public and private school options for their children. Student learning will be way up and our prison populations and income inequality will be way down. Come that day, we will look back on the education battles of the last 20 years and those that are yet to come and we will celebrate the courageous leadership of people like Betsy DeVos who fought for the progress achieved. We will also look back on those who tried to block it. We will remember their names and hold them in contempt.
• Bret Schundler, a former mayor, Republican nominee for governor, and state commissioner of education in New Jersey, was also the chief operating officer of The Kings College and a founder of three charter schools in Jersey City.