Mary Landrieu’s Illusions Of Grandeur

When U.S. Sen. Mary Landrieu chimed in last week on Gov. Bobby Jindal’s education reform package, one couldn’t be blamed for being a bit confused by her double-speak.

On one hand, she commended the governor’s focus on reform, also encouraging him to consider a “strategic use of vouchers” in order to help kids in the worst schools. On the other hand, she derided the voucher expansion proposal in Jindal’s current education reform package, calling the scale of the expansion “illusionary.”

But the only person operating with illusions is Landrieu. In her attempt to show a bipartisan streak without upsetting special interests intent on maintaining the educational status quo, she misses perhaps the most key point about Jindal’s plan: it does exactly what she accuses it of not doing.

The governor wants to expand vouchers—which currently operate with great success in Orleans Parish—to the rest of the state, and expand the criteria of eligible students to those attending public schools that are graded “C,” “D,” or “F” while meeting certain income limits. Landrieu asserted that this would make 378,000 students eligible for the program, far more than private schools have capacity to seat.

In reality, data from across the country shows that far fewer will take advantage of the program. Statewide private school choice programs with extensive statewide eligibility exist everywhere from Florida to Indiana to Ohio Arizona, and the results are all the same: students who are struggling most are the ones benefiting from expanded options.

We shouldn’t expect anything different in Louisiana. Many more than the 1,800 enrolled students in New Orleans meet the eligibility requirements for the city’s current voucher program, yet nobody can accuse private schools in New Orleans of struggling to meet parent demand. As long as every eligible parent who wants to participate in the program is given that opportunity—and New Orleans parents are overwhelmingly satisfied with the program, to the tune of 93 percent—we needn’t worry about artificial capacity concerns.

That’s because the goal of the Jindal expansion and other school choice measures across the country is not to meet some artificial quota, or to send every eligible child to any certain type of school. At the crux of the fight for educational options is giving families a choice. What type of school that students end up attending matters far less than the fact that parents were able to make the determination in the first place. States with the strongest educational backbones are predicated upon a diversity of choices, not the promotion of any individual system over another.

Our goal as a society must be to let every child maximize their potential by letting parents choose the school that best suits their needs, whether it is public or private. Even with the expansion of the voucher plan, many parents will determine that their children are best served by public or public charter schools. But those that see opportunity in a voucher should not be denied that opportunity because their U.S. Senator does not consider their struggle among the state’s “worst.”

Maybe Landrieu doesn’t consider students from low-income families at schools ranked “C” through F as worthy of an opportunity, but parents should and do expect more from their education system. There are many reasons that our state continues to rank behind nearly every other in public school achievement. One of them is a set of expectations held by Landrieu and others that accepts “C” schools as the norm.

Only when we consider students at so-called “C” schools as worthy of immediate opportunity can we expect to see our educational standing in this country improve.

If roles were reversed, and Landrieu was forced to send her kids to a “C,” “D,” or “F”-rated school, would she be content with a legislator in Washington telling her that she didn’t deserve another option? Would she stand silent as her dreams of giving her child the best opportunity possible were called a mere illusion?

It’s unfortunate that Landrieu believes that she—and not a child’s parent—is best equipped to determine whether kids across the state are in need of another option. In Jindal’s plan, there is a real chance to help all of Louisiana’s struggling children attend the school of their parents’ choice. Many see their best path forward in public schools, and many don’t. But that’s a determination that only an individual child’s parent can make.

It’d be illusionary to think anything otherwise.

– Stephen Walton of Abita Springs, La. 

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