A casual news consumer might assume the political prospects for Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D, Massachusetts) could not be brighter. Just two years in Congress and her work to create the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, as well as her defense of Dodd-Frank banking regulation, has made her the darling of the progressive Left. A growing number in her party even think she could beat Hillary Clinton for the 2016 Democrat nomination to be president of the United States.
Search Warren’s bio on the Internet, however, and you discover that 11 years ago she and her daughter Amelia Tyagi, a business consultant, published a highly regarded academic text on bankruptcy called “The Two-Income Trap: Why Middle-Class Mothers and Fathers Are Going Broke” (Basic Books). It is a book that many in her party would be horrified to learn makes a brilliant case for abolishing the monopoly public school system in favor of a universal school voucher program.
Tying Mortgages to Schools Breaks the Middle-Class Bank
Written while she was still teaching at Harvard Law School, then-Professor Warren demonstrated that the single largest cause of middle-class families becoming insolvent was not too many trips to the mall, buying the latest designer clothes, fancy vacations, eating out every night, or some other breakdown in financial discipline. Apart from health insurance premiums and the second car for a working spouse, the biggest squeeze on middle-class families came from high mortgage payments for homes in those relatively few communities with desirable public schools.
“What’s happening today,” said Warren, “is that young parents buy houses with just three thoughts in mind: schools, schools, and schools.” The problem is that “in inflation-adjusted dollars, they’re paying … 70 percent more than their parents paid for a house ….”
To support her argument against ZIP-code-based public education, she more than once cited the case of the University of Pennsylvania, which for years had struggled to keep the decaying neighborhood around campus from completely collapsing. No amount of money Penn spent did any good until the administration hit on the idea of building its own elementary school. Almost overnight prices for the same dilapidated houses tripled, as parents from surrounding areas tried desperately to get a home where their children could get an acceptable education.
Not surprisingly, the Warren of a decade ago was an enthusiastic supporter of school vouchers. Giving all parents a taxpayer-funded scholarship that they could spend at any school, public or private, she said, would “relieve parents from the terrible choice of leaving their kids in lousy schools or bankrupting themselves to escape those schools.”
An interview Warren gave to CommonWealth, a Massachusetts policy quarterly, in the fall of 2003 was especially revealing: “[Parents’] confidence in the public school system is in shambles. 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 answer back then to the problem of lifting up the middle class: “Decouple school assignment and zip code … then the economic pressure on families would be released almost immediately.”
Rewriting History Necessary for Politicking
It is not a coincidence that Warren’s support for school choice dropped through the floor once she decided to run for public office as a Democrat. In spite of large cash infusions from wealthy environmentalists and trial lawyers, teacher unions remain the party’s largest and most influential donor base. 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” is not exactly the kind of inspirational rhetoric the National Educational Association likes to hear.
In recent years, Warren has bent over backwards to qualify what she “really meant” by school choice. In a rather astonishing reinterpretation of her own work, it turns out she never supported vouchers for religious school or even for non-sectarian private schools, just the ability to go to a public school in an adjacent district.
Surely Warren knows that regional busing policies have proved consistently ineffective in places like my home state of Connecticut, where they have been tried with meager results for years. But thus far the mainstream media have been remarkably tolerant of her Orwellian rewrite of her policy history.
Yet it is hard to imagine how quiet the Clinton or any other potential challenger for the 2016 Democrat nomination for president will remain if Warren’s star continues to rise. At that point, the senator will face a decision with no good alternative: either reveal herself to adoring supporters in the party’s left-wing base as a closet free-market education reformer—or as just another hypocritical politician.