New Jersey's U.S. senators, Robert Menendez and Cory Booker, must put partisanship aside and support the nomination of Betsy DeVos for secretary of education. She's earned their support with her advocacy for public education reform and better educational opportunities for children. It also would be in their best political interests.
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 city of only 6 percent Republicans, 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 provide this equality of opportunity caused the National Education Association 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 DeVos because of her support for school choice. Their attacks intended to hurt me politically, but it backfired as more low-income families became aware that I wanted to provide them the ability to do what 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," the Proverbs say, and by preventing the fuller educational enfranchisement of the poor, national Democratic leaders drove lifelong Democrats to me.
DeVos has been laboring to expand the educational enfranchisement of the poor for a long time. I served with her 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.
I'm experiencing a feeling of deja vu all over again and wondering if the Democrats' attacks on 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, 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. 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, as the state's commissioner of education, we implemented many statewide public education reforms that I'd first proposed 15 years before. Now school voucher and scholarship tax credit programs are proliferating throughout the states.
There will come a day when America's public schools are dramatically better than they are today, and when all Americans, the poor as well as the rich, can choose from among excellent public and private school options for their children. 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 such as Betsy DeVos who fought for the progress achieved. We will also censoriously remember those who tried to block it. Let us entreat Menendez and Booker not to be among them.
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.