After decades of struggling to stifle any hope of giving children and their parents a chance to escape from failing schools, liberals are starting to fear their task is inevitably doomed to failure. The decision by the Indiana Supreme Court earlier this week to uphold the constitutionality of the state’s vouchers program that gives low- and middle-income families the right to use state money to attend private schools is a landmark in the long battle for school choice. While this is just one victory in a single state, combined with other developments elsewhere it may not only be the beginning of the erosion of the government education monopoly but a change in the way we define the term public education.
The Indiana case is significant not just because of its size (over 9,000 students took advantage of it this year) but because it challenges the notion that the only proper way for the state to educate children is via the public schools system. As even the New York Times noted in a front-page feature published yesterday, the growing number of efforts to offer families a choice that heretofore was only available to the wealthy is based on the idea that private and religious schools are just as valid a form of public education as those run by the state. More to the point, with so many public schools failing their students, the ideological resistance to vouchers is dooming large numbers of children, especially minorities in urban areas, to a future with no hope of a better life. While choice opponents still hold the upper hand in most states, what is happening in Indiana is bound to have an impact on the rest of the country.
President Obama may be planning to run for re-election in part by touting his schemes to create more “fairness” by raising the taxes of the wealthy, but his Republican opponent is wisely choosing to try to trump him by focusing on the most important factor behind inequality in America: education. Mitt Romney used his appearance yesterday before the Latino Coalition at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce to not just pay lip service to the issue of education but to announce his support for a step that could actually be the beginning of a sea change in governmental thinking about funding. Romney stated that if elected he would ensure that federal education funds will follow the students rather than merely being poured into the public schools in the areas where they live. If he follows through on this promise he would take the United States a significant way down the road toward a genuine system of school choice that would enable all parents, and not just the wealthy, to choose the best schools for their children rather than being stuck in what Romney rightly called failing institutions.
In an account of the speech that seemed cribbed from the Democratic campaign talking points, the New York Times tried to portray Romney’s stance as just a faint echo of Obama’s efforts on education that they claim have co-opted some traditional Republican positions. That is a gross exaggeration, because the president remains firmly in the pocket of the teacher unions and other supporters of the educational status quo. But whatever common ground may exist between the two on charter schools, Romney’s pledge on choice provides a stark contrast to the Democrat’s and one that can work to his advantage as a campaign issue. For all of his talk about equality, Obama is vulnerable here because of his ideological opposition to empowering parents rather than the government educational monopoly.