Originally published in Official Artur Davis
Ed Kilgore’s latest posting in The New Republic is a pretty fair representation of how allegedly centrist Democrats have maneuvered their way into becoming skeptics of education reform, or at least reform more comprehensive than charter schools. Kilgore’s target is Governor Bobby Jindal’s statewide voucher initiative in Louisiana, and its embrace of a parental right to transfer children out of sub-standard districts. Kilgore focuses on what he describes as insufficiently strong standards to measure performance levels in private schools, or to weed out “bad apple” private academies that have no legitimate claim on public dollars.
On one hand, Kilgore’s line of attack already seems slightly outdated: as he concedes, the state is actually in the process of developing metrics for evaluating which private schools are eligible for participation in the program, and the more pressing debate in Baton Rouge has not been over performance standards, but over which faith-based institutions are suitable for inclusion. Kilgore still persists in assuming that Louisiana’s voucher program will let in too many bottom-dwellers. But while lamenting the fact that an unidentified number (he unhelpfully describes it as a “lot”) of the schools applying for the voucher program suffer from curriculum flaws or other professional deficiencies, Kilgore offers no evidence beyond a reflexive suspicion of Louisiana’s competence that the weakest applicants will survive vetting. Of course, the larger inference, that too few of the state’s private schools provide a high quality alternative worthy of public support, requires a much rigorous assessment of comparative data like graduation rates, college enrollment, achievement based testing, etc.
Certainly, it’s a case that would also demand comparisons between private institutions and the existing state of Louisiana public schools. Kilgore spends literally no time analyzing the conditions in the state’s government run schools, and if he had, he would have uncovered appalling levels of mediocrity: according to the state’s education department, 44% of the state’s public schools received a D or F ranking under the state’s system for grading its K-12 institutions. Roughly one-third of graduating seniors are deemed to be inadequate in basic skills.
Nor does Kilgore grapple with a fact that even a private school skeptic must concede. At least some Louisiana private schools are high performers, but remain well out of financial reach for children whose median family income is one of the lowest in the country. Is it troubling to Kilgore that without vouchers, there is no consistently effective path for low-income Louisiana children to gain access to schools like New Orleans’ well regarded but 8% African American Isidore Newman, or the nationally recognized girls school at Mount Carmel Academy, with its 2% black population?
The usual lament of reform opponents is that innovations are not “scalable”, a buzzword meaning that successful initiatives in a few cherry picked environments won’t reach most children and as a result are an uneven or unfair use of public resources. The refrain from reform advocates, including Kilgore’s old colleagues in the Democratic Leadership Council and elsewhere, has generally been that even scatter-shot victories promote competition and offer at least some tangible successes in hard-luck neighborhoods.
At least that used to be the rejoinder. Kilgore’s critique that a rising tide won’t lift enough boats and that some indescribable number of children may be no better or worse off sounds exactly like the left’s familiar, cliched objections. And Kilgore’s failure to spell out even a barebones case that Louisiana is incapable of identifying acceptable voucher eligible schools underscores his own concession that the real grievance is “not one of competence, but philosophy.”
That’s a staggering admission from a card-carrying member of DC’s centrist establishment, which has historically prided itself on chastising the teacher unions for putting ideological purity above specific outcomes. Some of the about-face has to with the resemblance between Jindal’s reform agenda and Mitt Romney’s proposal to permit children in low achieving districts to transfer to public or private alternatives. But the tactical imperatives of the campaign year notwithstanding, it’s a fair conclusion that any reform that combines two conservative pillars, “parental choice” and “private education” is increasingly intolerable ground in the Democratic universe.
To Kilgore, conservative reformers like Jindal are simply betraying their right-wing enthusiasm for market based choice at the expense of the Bush era’s endorsement of accountability driven regimes like No Child Left Behind. It’s a sound enough political point—Republicans bargained away vouchers in 2001 as a tradeoff for Democratic buy-in on achievement metrics that looked tougher and less malleable on paper than they have proved to be in practice. Conservatives are increasingly scornful of that trade, as Rick Santorum discovered when his vote for NCLB came under fire.
But as a policy critique, it is Democrats, even centrist ones, who seem to be in the throes of a theory. The mantra, for example, that public dollars should never be channeled to private schools sounds weirdly anachronistic in the aftermath of a healthcare reform that deploys government money to subsidize participation in private insurance markets. Is education a wholly different animal?
It is not hard to imagine a liberal, much less middle-of the road case, that low income children deserve an opportunity to enter elite private education regardless of the economic obstacles, particularly when the left is as willing as the right to acknowledge the link between educational achievement and career earnings and job security. The fact that vouchers are so anathema to all stripes of Democrats (Michelle Rhee and Harold Ford are conspicuous exceptions, but neither is terribly influential in current Democratic politics) is a curious departure from the normal progressive enthusiasm for government interventions that “level the playing field”.
Kilgore’s case, such as it is, is also a reminder that parental choice is suspect in its own right in Democratic circles. (Indeed, he says as much, by raising the specter of parents who “have motives beyond a desire for the best possible education for their kids”). But a platform that insists that parents don’t always know best is hardly a political winner. It’s easier to make straw-men of the weakest, and probably atypical, private schools, and to dust off old stereotypes about sub-par Bible based academies. The tragedy is that the Democratic center has turned to playing that game as shamelessly as the teacher unions once did.