In general, conservatives were thrilled with Sen. John McCain’s selection of the reform-minded governor of Alaska, Sarah Palin, to join him on the Republican presidential ticket, while Democratic operatives cast aspersions on her readiness to be a heartbeat from the presidency.
So, what to make of the verbal bouquets thrown her way by one of the staunchest supporters of Democratic candidates and liberal causes, the National Education Association (NEA), the nation’s largest teachers union? In an August 29 statement, NEA President Reg Weaver said, “the 3.2 million members [of the NEA] are pleasantly surprised” by the choice of Palin to run for vice president. One never ceases to marvel at how the NEA brass can presume to speak instantly on any issue for more than 3 million K-12 teachers, but that is the union’s standard operating procedure.
Mr. Weaver (who left office Sept. 1) professed to be cheered by Mrs. Palin’s father, mother, and brother having worked in public schools, and by per-pupil spending having risen during her nearly two years as governor. However, the NEA’s obsession with thwarting school-choice vouchers plainly had much to do with its rare praise for a GOP candidate.
Mrs. Palin, asserted Mr. Weaver, “is opposed to sending public money to support private schools through public schemes like vouchers.” Again, that is NEA-speak. Vouchers go to support parents and children in the manner of a scholarship. The families, not some public factotum, choose the school.
The NEA based its judgment on a September 9, 2006, NEA-Alaska interview of gubernatorial candidates. They asked Mrs. Palin, “Do you support the use of vouchers, tax credits, or other programs to provide public money to those who wish to attend private or religious schools?” Her answer: “No, it is unconstitutional, and it is as simple as that.” She went on to say she favors giving parents additional options, especially for vocational-technical training. In Alaska, she said, “we are resource-based, resource-rich, and so many of our students are going to go on to vo-tech careers. We want to make sure that they have that option, but vouchers are unconstitutional.”
An online Institute for Justice (IJ) analysis of state constitutions finds Alaska’s to be one of the most “problematic” for voucher proposals. IJ, a libertarian public-interest law firm, concludes that a tax- credit initiative, not outright vouchers, would stand the best chance of surviving judicial review in Alaska.
Responding to an Oct. 22, 2006, Anchorage Daily News candidates’ questionnaire, Mrs. Palin expressed her general support for parental choice. The newspaper asked her, “Would you support amending the state constitution to allow private school vouchers?” Mrs. Palin’s written response: “My priorities are to support options for education as allowable within the current funding formula - including home schools, charter schools, and vocational training. This doesn’t require amending the constitution.”
Is Mrs. Palin’s position on vouchers, which so warms the NEA bosses’ hearts, going to chill the enormous affection for her among social conservatives who love her pro-life, pro-gun-rights, pro-drilling, and general populist-reformer slants? Not likely, judging from the enthusiastic reception Republican Convention delegates gave her September 3 address, which barely mentioned education.
For one thing, the educational options she has supported, such as homeschooling and public charter schools, are almost as high on the NEA hate list as vouchers. In his presidential campaign, Mr. McCain has enthusiastically supported voucher programs such as the one Congress created for needy children in Washington. Because the fine print of Alaska’s constitution does not come into play there, or for that matter in the other 49 states, there is no reason to believe Mrs. Palin cannot include vouchers among the educational options she supports.
As short-lived as it is likely to be, the NEA’s declared fondness for Sarah Palin could help the Republican ticket with those oft-invoked 18 million “Hillary voters” who turned out for the New York senator in the Democratic primaries. After all, in July 1999 the NEA bestowed on Hillary Clinton its Friend of Education Award.
Robert Holland is a senior fellow for education policy with the Heartland Institute.