Today the Louisiana school voucher case got some national publicity from the Washington Times, which surveyed the scene on the school choice movement and casts Gov. Bobby Jindal as the protagonist of the effort, begun by former Wisconsin governor Tommy Thompson in the 1990’s, to create an educational marketplace out of the old Soviet-style public school system which dominates the national scene.
The “school choice” movement caught fire in the 1990s and began to rack up results in both school districts and the courts, which upheld the legality of such solutions.
But under a different Bush presidency, the movement yielded to the No Child Left Behind legislation created when George W. Bush reached across the aisle to the liberal icon Sen. Edward M. Kennedy to craft an effort to salvage public schools rather than let parents abandon them. The effort caught the media’s fancy but eventually deflated when parents and teachers soured on its chronic testing requirements.
Now Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal and GOP executives in a few other states are taking conservatives back to the future with the most extensive public schools scholarship and voucher program in the nation’s history.
Times writer Ralph Z. Hallow characterizes the suit filed by the Eric Holder Justice Department against the voucher program as little more than a political payoff to the teachers’ unions who patronize the Democrat party and stand in the way of school choice…
Teacher unions are major sources of campaign contributors and volunteers for the Democratic Party and its candidates, from the local city council to the U.S. presidency. The unions pressed national Democrats and President Obama to squash Mr. Jindal’s program, which overwhelmingly benefits blacks and other minorities. The administration’s rational, carried out by Attorney General Eric H. Holder, Jr., was to claim that vouchers threaten to undo desegregation.
Black parents, however, turned the tables and petitioned to join with Mr. Jindal in a lawsuit to get the Justice Department to drop its opposition. Earlier this month the administration reversed course and dropped its efforts to secure a permanent injunction preventing the vouchers from being used.
The move generated headlines making it seem as if parents’ freedom to choose their children’s schools and competition in educational institutions had triumphed.
Hallow notes that Jindal is warning DOJ’s momentary surrender merely signals a change in tactics and that ultimately Holder’s aim will be to strangle school vouchers through capricious regulations.
Which is probably true.
But what the writer doesn’t say, though he’s clearly driving at in the piece, is one reason why DOJ is hassling Jindal about his reforms is a lack of participation by GOP governors and legislatures across the country in market-based educational reform. He doesn’t have as many compatriots in that project as he needs to create a groundswell for school choice in red states.
The drive by conservatives and many GOP governors to return to Mr. Thompson’s signature idea has been modest at best, making it harder for the GOP to regain its image as the party of ideas — of new ways of solving old problems.
More than two decades after Mr. Thompson brought vouchers to Milwaukee schools, only 12 states have any voucher programs at all and only four, along with the nation’s capital, offer vouchers to at least some poor students in bad schools.
Among the existing voucher programs, most aren’t for the general population. Of the 12 states with voucher plans, only four states and the District of Columbia offer voucher programs to low-income students or students in failing schools. The other states’ vouchers are strictly for students in remote rural areas and others with learning disabilities.
Vouchers so far have a mixed record. In some instances, charlatans and thieves have pocketed tuition money. On the other hand, other voucher-enabled schools have sent more graduates to college proportionally than public schools.
Mr. Jindal sees his battle as more than just an effort to reform education. He also believes Republicans sorely need to restore their reputation as the party with cutting-edge ideas to the day’s most pressing problems.
“We have to win the war of ideas,” he said during the RGA meeting last week. “We need to do a better job as a party of defining what we’re for.”
Gone from elected office are such ideas leaders as Mr. Thompson, Michigan’s John Engler, Jack Kemp and Newt Gingrich. And the Contract with America is now reserved for the history books.
You could see the fact Jindal hasn’t managed to catalyze as much support for school choice as one would suppose he should have in a number of ways. First, you could see school choice as politically risky – while Jindal was willing to step forward and own it, Democrats have attempted to personally pin every wrinkle along the way on him – the hysteria over creationist textbooks used in some religious schools, for example, or the controversy over the New Living Word School in Ruston. While the overall results of the voucher program have been positive so far, as evidenced by the 93 percent parent satisfaction rate of voucher schools in New Orleans, where the program has matured, or the fact that the number of enrollees in the statewide voucher program has rapidly advanced since its inception, it’s the anecdotal negative stories used as attacks on the program which make it constantly vulnerable. Those tiny cuts get headlines, while the more common success stories generally don’t – and for politicians it’s a bit frightening to engage in a high-profile initiative which might be better policy than politics.
Second, it’s a valid criticism that even within a state it’s better to put a voucher program in place within a school district than to impose one from above. Nobody’s trying to build a federal voucher program so far, but Jindal has imposed one on a statewide basis. And that, while it might be groundbreaking as a conservative policy innovation, can be criticized as a big-government move.
While as expected many Democrats castigated vouchers as a union-busting vehicle, a few voices on the political right also have been raised in criticism of choice.
“The voucher idea, which gained its notoriety as an alternative to public schools, is a full-blown, Washington-run, big-government program, dishing out billions of tax dollars as an entitlement,” Carol R. Horowitz wrote in the Mises Institute’s “The Free Market” publication.
Some members of Jindal’s Republican Governor’s Association would greatly prefer to see voucher programs flower at the local level rather than flowing from their state capitols. As a practical matter, though, asking the entry-level politicians who populate school boards to create voucher programs rather than commanding schools is akin to asking a leopard to change his spots. There will be no voucher programs without leadership at the state level, as top-down a model as that might constitute.
The third possibility is that Jindal just doesn’t persuade anybody. His detractors would nod their heads rapidly at such a suggestion, but it’s difficult to know what merit it has until we can test Jindal’s results as an evangelist for school choice against someone else who’s in the game.
Regardless of why vouchers and choice are still in their infancy as an educational agenda, it’s clear the Left sees them as a threat. If they weren’t, the DOJ wouldn’t be trying to kill school choice in Louisiana. And because Jindal is fighting the feds to defend his reform program, he might just lead the way toward a 21st-century educational model after all.