“No School Choice for You!”

If you're the kind of revolutionary, trailblazing, damn-all-conventions parent who wants your child to have--gasp!--a quality education, and you would like to have the ability to get your child into quality schools just like rich people do, then you don't have a friend in the Obama administration:

One of President Barack Obama’s conceits is that he is a pragmatist who seeks policies that work rather than pursuing a partisan agenda. On school choice, he doesn’t live up to the advertisement. His administration has been relentless in its ideological hostility to the idea, and seized on every possible pretext to express that hostility.

The White House considers any government funding for private or parochial education, even indirect funding, to be a betrayal of the public schools. The D.C. Opportunity Scholarship Program -- which provides federally funded vouchers for poor kids in Washington to attend private schools -- seems to have had some positive results, including higher high-school graduation rates for participants. Yet the Obama administration, not generally known for its tightfistedness, has repeatedly tried to end funding for it.

This position was terribly misguided, but it was at least open and transparent. Twice this year, the White House has gone after local school-choice programs -- which involve no federal funding -- in a more underhanded way.

In April, the Justice Department announced that private schools that participate in a choice program in Milwaukee will be subject to new regulations under the Americans with Disabilities Act. They will be treated as though they were government contractors. Never mind that the schools have contracts with parents, not with the government that aids the parents. Never mind, either, that in the program’s 22 years of operation no complaint about the treatment of a disabled student has ever been filed. A five-year study of the program found that being disabled had no bearing on a student’s likelihood of getting into a participating school.

The decision will nonetheless raise costs for the private schools. It will also make them think twice about participating, both because they want to avoid those costs and because they don’t want to compromise their independence.

Read on for a discussion of the administration's decision to sue Bobby Jindal's school choice program in Louisiana, which has been covered here. It is perhaps trite to recycle that old line about education being the focus of the civil rights struggle of our time, but just because the line may be trite doesn't mean that it isn't true. It's bad enough that the Obama administration won't promote school choice in DC. It is even worse that--as Ramesh Ponnuru notes--it is trying to suffocate school choice efforts in states and localities around the country, and that it is on the wrong side of the civil rights struggle as a consequence.

Now Under Attack: School Choice in Louisiana

I am one of those radical revolutionaries who believes that education is the great civil rights struggle of our time, and that as part and parcel of that struggle, parents who don't like the public schools where their kids are going ought to have the right to take their kids out of a failing public school and use vouchers to exercise school choice--including patronizing private and religious schools where kids can receive better educations.

I believe this strongly enough that if I were re-drafting the Constitution, I would make school choice--along with economic liberty--part of the Bill of Rights. I am glad to see that Bobby Jindal, one of my favorite governors, has decided to make school choice a priority in Louisiana.

Too bad that the Department of Justice has decided that it has nothing better to do than to sue to stop the school choice program. Note that "[a]lmost all the students using vouchers are black," which means that the Justice Department's actions will disadvantage minority students by a tremendously disproportionate amount. Should the Justice Department's suit succeed and should those students once again have to contend with failing schools, they will have Eric Holder to thank for their plight.

Education Policy in Perspective

I am just going to let Derrell Bradford say his piece on school choice, after which, I am going to let him drop the mic. Because he can:

I am a Democrat, and I support vouchers, tax credits, etc. with all of my heart and in the deepest and truest place in my being. And there are a few reasons for this. First, I had the experience of getting a voucher when there were none in Maryland (as there still, unfortunately, aren’t any) and that experience literally saved my life. I never go to Dartmouth or the University of Pennsylvania without that, and I wake up every day knowing that more kids should have that chance. Second, I’ve had too many friends, family members, and neighbors, wrecked by schools that did not work and that had long histories of not working. Educational opportunity is a personal thing for me…and every kid’s future is more important than preserving anyone’s notion of residential assignment as the primary way we distribute education.

And maybe the most important thing for my friends on the left is that we would never support delivering health care the same way we deliver education. If you had to go to the hospital that was closest to you just because you lived near it the world would end…no one would stand for it. But we force families to get their education precisely that way. How does that make sense? We have these discussions about wealth inequality but our education system distributes quality through the housing market, which is absolutely a wealth proxy. If you’re for forcing people to buy “free” education with a mortgage then it’s not free and it certainly isn’t “public.”

Vouchers, charters…choice…to me they inform a worldview about education where there is no 100% solution. There are, instead, 100 one-percent solutions. You need choice—accountable and transparent of course—just like you need teacher tenure and evaluation reform. Just like in the real world you need both laws, and the police. Law without the police is anarchy. The police without law are an army. These things compliment one another. And again, the wealthiest families know this already. They’ve got plenty of choices. The only folks who don’t have them (or who have them in short supply) are poor.

I don’t want to rant on but there is one more important thing. I tell folks all the time that President Obama is the most important school choice story in America. Parochial school in Indonesia, and a scholarship to the prestigious Punahou school in Honolulu. Want to know the kind of difference expanding choices for minority kids can make? Just check out 1600 Pennsylvania Ave.