BOWDON: Does Joe Biden Remember His Question about School Choice on the Senate Floor?

'Is It Not Possible that Giving Poor Kids a Way Out Will Force the Public Schools to Improve?'

While the state of public schools hasn’t exactly been a primary topic in the 2020 Presidential race so far, former Vice President Joe Biden weighed in on education yesterday with a Tweet.

What remains to be seen is how stridently candidate Biden will pivot away from his previous positions on school choice, like his opponent Elizabeth Warren, or rather just de-emphasize his past thinking, as has Cory Booker.

One vestige of Biden’s thoughts on school choice was delivered on the Senate floor, September 30, 1997, after the then-Senator from Delaware had already run for President twice. He posed the kind of questions that we might not expect to hear from the 2019-edition candidate Biden, such as, “Is it not possible that giving poor kids a way out will force the public schools to improve and result in more people coming back?”

To be sure, Biden’s questions from 1997 were couched at the end with an indecisive “I do not know the answer.” But like Warren and Booker, Biden’s framing of the school choice issue seems a world apart from what he’s saying today.

Here is the complete transcript of Senator Biden’s floor speech from 1997:

Mr. President, since 1992, when the Senate first voted on the issue of providing private school vouchers, I have consistently voted against spending Federal money to pay for tuition at private schools. I did so again today. But, I rise to let my colleagues know that I am reconsidering my position based on the changed circumstances in American education. I want to give everyone fair notice that in the future, I may vote to allow such a limited experiment.

I realize that whenever elected officials change their position on an issue, they are subject to accusations of flip-flopping or being inconsistent or trying to have it both ways. It is for that reason that I want to explain my thinking on this matter today.

Unlike some opponents of vouchers, I have never categorically opposed the idea of public money being used under any circumstances for private school education. Rather — and I think I have been forthright about this from the very beginning — my concerns have been very specific. First, I have questions about whether a private school voucher system, when it involves private religious schools, is constitutional. And, second, I have deep reservations about taking money away from underfunded public schools.

But, Mr. President, I do not believe that simply because I have always voted a particular way on a particular issue that I should be locked in forever to that position. Circumstances change. Thinking changes. And, I have been giving this issue a lot of thought.

I have come to the belief that the constitutional issues involved here are not as clear cut as opponents have argued. While lower courts have ruled that vouchers used in private religious schools violate the first amendment’s prohibition on the establishment of religion, the Supreme Court has not yet weighed in on the question.

In fact, the Supreme Court has ruled that State tuition tax credits for private religious school tuition are perfectly constitutional, and the Supreme Court has ruled that Pell grants — vouchers for college students — can be used in private religious colleges without violating the Constitution. Granted, Mr. President, the issues that the Court has adjudicated are not exactly parallel to the issue of private school vouchers for elementary and secondary school students. But, the point is, it is an open question. Even some liberal constitutional scholars have noted that vouchers to parents and children may be constitutional. And, as long as it remains an open question, I do not think I can dismiss the issue of vouchers solely on constitutional grounds.

With regard to my second concern–that private school vouchers may drain funds away from the public schools — I now think that the issue is more complex. The real issue is not whether money is drained from public schools, but what effect vouchers would have on public schools and the quality of education those students receive. And, yes, I do believe there is a difference. Even if vouchers were to take money away from the public schools — and I should point out that not all voucher proposals do — that does not in and of itself mean that public schools will be harmed.

When you have an area of the country — and most often here we are talking about inner cities — where the public schools are abysmal or dysfunctional or not working and where most of the children have no way out, it is legitimate to ask what would happen to the public schools with increased competition from private schools and what would happen to the quality of education for the children who live there.

Most of the opponents of private school vouchers argue that with more kids attending private schools, the support for public education will be drained. To date, that assertion has largely gone unchallenged. I am not sure it should any more. Is it not possible that giving poor kids a way out will force the public schools to improve and result in more people coming back?

Make no mistake about it. Public education must be our primary focus. And, in considering voting for vouchers in the future, I am not subscribing to the philosophy of many voucher supporters who argue that there should be no Federal role in education or that the Federal Government should not in any way help States fund public education or that we should decrease our commitment to public education. On the contrary, I think we should increase that commitment. But, for those kids who are presently caught in a failed public school, we must start asking–only asking — if public education is still the only answer.

I do not know the answer to that or any of the other questions I have raised today. But, I believe the questions need to be asked. And, it may be that the only way that we will find out the answers is to create a limited private school voucher demonstration project.

I say “may,” Mr. President, because I do not know. And, that really is part of the point here. I will continue to ask these questions, listen to both sides of the debate, and ponder the answers. In so doing, however, I want everyone to understand that I may conclude in the end that the only true way to answer the questions is to try vouchers — in a limited fashion for those who need the most help.

Source: Congressional Record
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