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School Choice Gains Ground

Despite some setbacks, there have also been several victories for reformers in state legislatures.

by
Greg Forster

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July 8, 2009 - 12:47 am
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Some people think it’s been all bad news for school choice this year. Well, it’s all bad news if you follow the standard procedure of only paying attention to the bad news. But last month, the movement scored a big win: Indiana enacted a $2.5 million choice program, the state’s first. And if you take a broader view, you’ll see there was other good news for school choice along with the bad in the 2009 legislative season.

This is important because we’ve seen some people occasionally seize on any piece of bad news as an excuse to declare vouchers politically dead. It’s an easy way to avoid taking a stand on the issue, and in some of the more egomaniacal cases, to show the world how amazingly cool and above it all you are.

We’re seeing more of this squishy triangulation tactic as the public has become increasingly disillusioned about the prospects of reforming the education monopoly from within. Five years ago, politicians and other opportunists who didn’t want to take heat would just parrot one of the various union lines. Now, those lines are increasingly discredited.

As a measure of just how discredited, consider how the unions have resorted much more frequently to lies and backstabbing this year than in the past. Just recently, the National Education Association lied to senators about the empirical evidence on the D.C. voucher program. Sen. Joe Lieberman, who has shown more courage in this fight than any five Republicans combined, responded by calling out Barack Obama and Education Secretary Arne Duncan, by name, on their promise to follow where the evidence led — and he showed that it leads to vouchers.

The opportunists, still afraid of the unions but knowing that they’ll look like tools if they keep parroting the union line, need a new excuse not to get behind the only really promising movement for school reform that’s out there. “It’ll never win politically” is the new “it drains money from public schools.”

The thing is, the new excuse is as groundless as the old.

There is no doubt that there has been bad news for the D.C. voucher program this year, where there is an ongoing effort to kill the program in spite of positive empirical results. Moreover, Democrats control all branches of Wisconsin government for the first time in decades, and legislators are moving to add ridiculous new restrictions to the Milwaukee voucher program — even though, as in D.C., the evidence shows the program works.

But the D.C. fight isn’t over, and it hasn’t turned out to be quite as easy as the unions expected. Too many Democrats have awakened — sometimes at the prompting of their disadvantaged constituents — to the fact that the unions enrich themselves by destroying children’s lives, and have come around on school choice. And every time the NEA or Sen. Dick Durbin get caught lying about vouchers, it gets that much more uncomfortable for responsible leaders to vote with them.

Even in Milwaukee, pushback against the more outrageous anti-voucher proposals has been stronger than anticipated. Hispanic parents sick of “bilingual” education that leaves their kids monolingual (in Spanish) have flocked to vouchers so their kids can learn English. The new regulations would impose bilingual education on them, and they’re not taking it lying down.

More important, however, is what’s happening elsewhere. Believe it or not, there is a world outside of D.C. And Milwaukee’s not the only city in it.

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