There's something about our nation's capital that converts many leading Democrats to school choice. Perhaps it's the glimpse that Washington, D.C. affords into inner-city public schools.
But in most cases this appreciation of school choice extends only to their own children -- and not to the millions of children in failing public schools. Indeed, a nearly perfect correlation exists among Democratic presidential candidates who have exercised school choice for their own children and those who would deny such choices to the parents of other children.
When the Clintons came to Washington, D.C. in 1993, they could choose any public school for Chelsea. Being responsible parents of means, Bill and Hillary Clinton sent her instead to the elite private Sidwell Friends School. Two years later Mr. Clinton vetoed a bill that would have allowed low-income D.C. parents to use public funds to send their children to private schools. (A subsequent version of that program was signed into law by George W. Bush.)
And today presidential candidate Mrs. Clinton continues to stridently oppose school choice. In a speech to the National Education Association she vowed "never to abandon our public schools" -- speaking apparently as a politician, not a parent.
John Edwards, Mr. Populist, decries that "America has two school systems -- one for the affluent and one for everyone else." He should know. When he joined the U.S. Senate he sent his children to a religious school because, according to USA Today, the D.C. "public schools are deeply troubled." Mr. Edwards, however, opposes private school choice for low-income families on the curious grounds that this would "drain resources" from public schools. By such logic Mr. Edwards himself "drained" approximately $132,000 from the D.C. public schools.
Al Gore, who may yet join the presidential race, has said empathetically, "If I was a parent of a child who went to an inner-city school that was failing, I might be for vouchers, too." But he isn't, and so he is not. Mr. Gore sent all of his children to elite private schools in the nation's capital, like the one he attended growing up. But he militantly opposes school choice for low-income families.
There is only one Democratic aspirant who sent his children exclusively to public schools, and he was also the only one who signed a school choice bill into law in his own state: former Iowa Gov. Tom Vilsack, who withdrew from the race when his candidacy failed to gain traction. And there is only one candidate -- Sen. Joe Biden -- who has both sent his children to private school and supported school choice for others.
The mystery man is Sen. Barack Obama, who sends his child to a private school in Chicago yet once referred to school vouchers as "social Darwinism." Still, he says that on education reform, "I think a good place to start would be for both Democrats and Republicans to say . . . we are willing to experiment and invest in anything that works."
Well, school choice works. Every study that compares children who applied for school choice scholarships and received them with those who applied but did not shows improved academic performance. More important, every study that has examined the effect of school choice competition has found significantly improved performance by public schools.
Given their track records it is doubtful how many candidates will agree with Sen. Obama's professed openness to experiment. But as he might say, we can always have the audacity to hope.
Mr. Bolick is the director of the Goldwater Institute's Scharf Norton Center for Constitutional Litigation.