Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D–N.Y.) knows firsthand the limitations that come with the public-school system. In a recently unearthed Facebook Live video from 2017, the self-described democratic socialist said she worked to secure a spot for her goddaughter in a Bronx charter school.
"This area's like a lot of where my family is from," noted Ocasio-Cortez as she walked through the Bronx. "My goddaughter, I got her into a charter school like maybe a block or two down."
This isn't the first time that AOC has inadvertently made the case for school choice. At an October rally for Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders (I–Vt.), she shared that her family left the Bronx for a house in Westchester county, so that she could attend a higher-quality school. "My family made a really hard decision," said Ocasio-Cortez. "That's when I got my first taste of a country who allows their kids' destiny to be determined by the zip code they are born in."
The congresswoman has correctly diagnosed the problem. Whether or not a student is able to attend a decent public school too often turns on the neighborhood he or she happens to grow up in. It's a reality that briefly dominated the national conversation during the recent college admissions scandal, which saw wealthy celebrities paying to have their children receive rigged acceptances to elite universities. Comparisons were immediately drawn to the case of Kelley Williams-Bolar, who received a five-year prison sentence for using her father's address to ensure that her children could attend the superior elementary and middle schools nearby.
As AOC recognized in her speech at the Sanders rally, such a dilemma is only possible when the system hinges on a zip code. But isn't that a problem that school choice can help fix?
If her experience is any guide, the congresswoman should say yes. But school choice has become strangely polarizing in recent years, as many Democratic leaders forcefully repudiate charters.
"If you think your public school is not working, then go help your public school," Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D–Mass.) told the National Education Association (NEA) late last year. The presidential hopeful's education plan includes a slew of anti-choice measures, including ending all federal funding for public charters. "Go help get more resources for" your local public school, Warren has argued. "Volunteer at your public school. Help get the teachers and school bus drivers and cafeteria workers and the custodial staff and the support staff, help get them some support so they can do the work that needs to be done. You don't like the building? You think it's old and decaying? Then get out there and push to get a new one."
But those words ring hollow when you remember that Warren sent her own son to a private school.
The teachers unions, who comprise a powerful part of the Democratic coalition, are staunchly opposed to charter schools. A majority of black and Hispanic Democrats, by contrast, hold favorable opinions of school choice. Charters are understandably popular in poorer communities of color—communities that progressives say they stand for—because such nontraditional schools provide viable alternatives to the status quo.
During an education town hall last March, Ocasio-Cortez said that a set of "perverse incentives" led her cousin to send her children to charter schools. "The public schools in Hunt's Point didn't feel good enough," she declared, before borrowing a page from the Warren playbook: "We should never feel that way. And the moment we start feeling that way is the moment we should start fighting to improve [public schools]. Not to reject them."
But if Ocasio-Cortez's actual record tells us anything, it's that both she and her family rejected those traditional public schools in favor of school choice. Can you blame them?