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Elizabeth Warren Flipped, Then Flopped, On School Choice

She once advocated decoupling families from "school assignment and zip code." Then politics and unions got in the way.

For many years, one of my favorite arguments for letting parents use public money to pick their children’s schools came from a book on bankruptcy, published in 2003 by a Harvard Law School professor named Elizabeth Warren. Titled The Two-Income Trap, it punctured the myth that the major cause of personal insolvency is over-spending at the mall, fancy vacations, eating out too often, or some other stereotypical profligacy.

The real problem, Warren showed, is families extending themselves financially to buy homes in communities with decent public schools. When parents move to suburbs far away from where they work, she said, it’s almost always about “schools, schools, schools…. We focus on housing costs, but the economic effects of parents trying to buy into school districts echo everywhere else in the family’s financial budget and in its time budget.”

Well after publication, Warren continued to promote her book by campaigning for its central conclusion: that giving parents the opportunity to disconnect a quality K-12 education from their zip code would relieve them “from the terrible choice of leaving their kids in lousy schools or bankrupting themselves to escape those schools.”

“[Parents’] confidence in the public-school system is in shambles,” Warren told CommonWealth, a Massachusetts policy quarterly. “It’s crumbled. So parents are trying to pick among the ruins to find the school districts they believe represent a decent chance for their children to make it safely through school…. But as it becomes harder and harder to find good school districts, the prices in those particular zip codes keep going up.”

Her free-market solution: use school choice to “decouple school assignment and zip code…then the economic pressure on families would be released almost immediately.” This policy would not only dramatically reduce the number of bankruptcies, Warren’s book promised, it would also improve the overall quality of public education. “An all-voucher system would be a shock to the educational system,” Warren acknowledged, “but the shakeout might be just what the system needs.”

Yet in the months leading up to September 2011, when she first announced her intention to run for Republican Scott Brown’s Senate seat in the deep blue state of Massachusetts, her impassioned fight for school choice suddenly stopped. And by 2016, Senator Warren was openly working to defeat a Massachusetts ballot measure (Question 2) that would have expanded the number of state charter schools by a modest 12.

A year later, she helped lead the attack on President Trump’s nominee for education secretary, Betsy DeVos, a lifelong advocate for parental choice in education. And most recently, in a July speech to the American Federation of Teachers’ biannual convention in Pittsburgh, she expressed strong and unwavering support for the union’s anti-choice agenda. 

When pressed to explain such a blatant change of heart, Warren claimed she was never in favor of private school vouchers, tax credits for alternative schooling, or any other controversial reform—she only wanted to make it easier for kids to transfer from very bad public schools to better ones in surrounding neighborhoods. In a January 9, 2017 letter to Secretary-Designate DeVos, Warren even declared voucher programs to be “expensive and dangerous failures that cost taxpayers billions of dollars while destroying public education systems.”

That last assertion was too much for the New York Post, which just days later pointedly questioned her denial of her past positions. The Post recalled a line from Warren’s book: “With fully funded vouchers, parents of all income levels could send their children—and the accompanying financial support—to the schools of their choice.” And prior to running for office, she had praised many examples of choice that had nothing to do with transferring between public school districts.

One of her favorites involved the University of Pennsylvania, which for years had struggled to keep families with young children from abandoning a decaying neighborhood near campus. Nothing Penn tried stopped the exodus until the administration hit on the idea of building an alternative to the local elementary school. Almost overnight, the community stabilized, as parents discovered they did not have to move to a more expensive area to give their kids a decent education.

Of course, every politician should be free to change his or her position when new evidence contradicts the old—even though nothing Warren has advocated since becoming a senator, from stricter bank regulation to raising the minimum wage, would do nearly as much to help most families as the option to better educate their children without risking bankruptcy. Indeed, Senator Warren’s disavowal of a policy that so logically follows from her own research raises questions for both parties.

Should Republicans view Warren’s one-time plea that “zip codes should not act as barbed-wire fences to keep out children whose parents cannot afford homes in that district” as a signal that, as president, she’d be a domestic Nixon—turning against her own party on education as he did against his own on China? Even when criticizing school choice, as she does now, she tends to qualify her opposition with language that could someday justify such a reversal, saying, for example, that she opposes the rapid expansion of charter schools, not their very existence.

Similarly, can Democrats have confidence that her current left-leaning agenda isn’t just the slick policy veneer of a smart but ultimately untrustworthy politician? In a surprising article for the progressive journal Jacobin, former high school teacher Eric Blanc warned that Warren’s past education stands should automatically disqualify her as the Democrats’ presidential nominee. 

Warren may have temporarily reassured most teachers unions of her support. But at a time when her party’s progressive base longs for an ideologically committed candidate, the one already tagged “Pocahontas” needs to better explain how her once-impassioned school choice crusade so quickly and completely evaporated.

Dr. Lewis Andrews was executive director of the Yankee Institute for Public Policy at Trinity College from 1999 to 2009. He is author of the forthcoming book Living Spiritually in the Material World (Fidelis Press).

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