In political terms 2010 may have been the year of the Tea Party movement, but in policy terms it was the year of school choice. And with courageous reformers at the helm of several states, 2011 could be even better.
Last year, school choice moved beyond the think tanks and policy journals and squarely into popular culture.
The first annual National School Choice Week in late January was a fitting recognition that the issue has been successfully entered the zeitgeist even as education remains mainly (and appropriately) a state and local issue.
In the midst of this ongoing battle, it’s useful to survey the ground that’s been taken and assess what’s necessary to traverse the terrain that remains between here and victory.
Shift in Public Opinion
Reform has come far since Wisconsin broke the seal with school choice in Milwaukee more than two decades ago. Thirteen additional states have some sort of opportunity scholarship initiative, and 40 states have charter school laws.
When the idea of charter schools became acceptable, so did the concept of choice.
In fact, opponents of school choice are in such a weak position than not even a choice-averse president—remember, President Obama decided to end Washington DC’s voucher program over bipartisan objections—could muster a word of support for the status quo in this year’s State of the Union address.
Instead, Obama cited the turnaround of Bruce Randolph School in Denver as an example worthy of emulation around the country.
“Three years ago, [Randolph] was rated one of the worst schools in Colorado, located on turf between two rival gangs,” Obama said. “But last May, 97 percent of the seniors received their diploma. Most will be the first in their family to go to college.”
Teachers Union Sundown?
The president didn’t get into details, perhaps for fear of offending his major constituency, but in true Paul Harvey fashion the Weekly Standard provided the rest of the story. Turns out the local district gave the school autonomy three years ago, freeing the principal from the usual union-imposed strictures. Teachers were required to reapply for their jobs; only six were kept. That was the beginning of the turnaround at Bruce Randolph.
On the other end of the style spectrum is New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie (R). Not two years into his first term, Christie has become a superstar because of his unflinching willingness to take on the teachers unions and the educracy. What has surprised many observers is that Christie’s popularity is a direct result of his willingness to take up the school choice fight, not in spite of it.
War of Attrition
Progress has been substantial. The excitement generated by movies such as Waiting for “Superman” and The Cartel has been uplifting. The political leadership of Republican governors such as Christie, Indiana’s Mitch Daniels, Florida’s Rick Scott, Wisconsin’s Scott Walker, and others has been encouraging.
The debate is no longer over the merits of school choice but rather over what forms it should take.
How we implement choice is the next front, where a war of attrition with the unions and their kept politicians is being fought. Despite winning the intellectual battle and securing a decisive legal victory with the Supreme Court’s seminal decision in the Zelman v. Simmons-Harris (2002), progress toward full-blown opportunity scholarship programs has slowed.
The teachers’ unions are skilled political adversaries. They have conceded what they must, such as the introduction of charter schools, in order to pantomime receptiveness to reform while seeking to limit numbers and draw the line at charters.
The real takeaway from movies like Waiting for “Superman” is that winning the public opinion battle is a hollow victory without gaining implementation. The teachers unions largely ceded the field of public opinion and have made their stand on implementation.
Winning Phase Two
The good news for children and parents across the nation is the school choice movement’s best days are ahead of it. The unions are like a collective of candlemakers attempting to block the introduction of electricity. Thank goodness the candlemakers were not as obstinate or politically powerful.
Nevertheless, the evidence of the impact of school choice mounts and the audience interested in the self-serving arguments advanced by the teachers’ unions is dwindling. It only is a matter of time.
Of course, that is little solace to families whose children are currently having their futures taken from them by being relegated to schools we know will fail them.
But reformers should take comfort in being part of a movement that lives its principles. There is no policy orthodoxy in school choice—the options are as varied as the supporters of the movement, and it is constantly evolving to meet the challenges of the latest specious argument from its opponents.
The teachers’ unions contend parents are the problem and low-income families or single mothers likely would not make an informed choice if given the opportunity. To that canard the school choice movement responds with parent trigger laws requiring the parental engagement the teachers’ unions allege they support—but I’m certain they did not have in mind the kind of engagement parent trigger laws provide.
Such innovations promise far greater success in the implementation phase of school choice. That would be something to celebrate for “National School Choice Week 2012.”
Dan Proft ([email protected]) is a host and featured political commentator on WLS radio in Chicago.