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School choice doesn’t carry R or D label

Rep. Coderre
Rep. Coderre

Anyone who denies the growing bipartisanship around all things school choice should pause to consider what happened in Rhode Island this year.

There, in one of the bluest of blue states, a member of the Democratic leadership team sponsored a statewide voucher bill, turning to the Friedman Foundation for help crafting the bill language. Rep. Elaine Coderre’s bill didn’t pass in the session that ended last week. But it’s expected to get serious consideration next year and Coderre is confident Democrats will be on board.

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“Absolutely believe it or I wouldn’t be doing it,” Coderre, the Speaker Temporare, told redefinED in the podcast attached below.

There is an accelerating pace to the embrace of school choice. Every year, more states adopt new programs, even more states consider them, and ever more Democrats are in the mix. In Louisiana last year, 19 Democrats voted in favor of Republican Gov. Bobby Jindal’s voucher program. In North Carolina this year, Democrats are co-sponsoring a voucher bill that appears headed for passage. And in New Jersey last week, Newark Mayor Cory Booker offered another unflinching defense of school choice despite being in the middle of a Democratic primary for U.S. Senate.

Coderre, the longest-serving member of the Rhode Island House, represents the working-class city of Pawtucket. She is not a half-hearted Democrat. She voted for a bill that authorized same-sex marriage; sponsored legislation to put wheelchair accessible taxis on the road; said yes to upping the minimum wage. On the voucher bill, she said she didn’t see a partisan issue; she saw something that empowered parents and offered more opportunities for kids. “I didn’t think that had an R or a D label,” she said.

Coderre said supporting vouchers wasn’t much of a leap for other reasons. Rhode Island already has charter schools, and it has a modest tax credit scholarship program. Coderre backed both. In that context, vouchers are just another option.

Coderre also noted that she attended both public and private schools, as did her children. All parents have the right to determine what options will help their kids be successful, she said, and all of us benefit when that happens. When a Catholic parents group asked her to put vouchers on the agenda, Coderre said she jumped at the chance: “It wasn’t a hard sell, believe me.”

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BY Ron Matus

Ron Matus is director for policy and public affairs at Step Up for Students and a former editor of redefinED. He joined Step Up in February 2012 after 20 years in journalism, including eight years as an education reporter with the Tampa Bay Times (formerly the St. Petersburg Times). Ron can be reached at or (727) 451-9830. Follow him on Twitter @RonMatus1 and on facebook at

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