Commentary Magazine


Topic: school choice

Obama’s Policies, Not Fox, Hurt the Poor

Yesterday, during a conversation about poverty at the Catholic-Evangelical Summit at Georgetown University, President Obama employed his favorite rhetorical device — a straw man opponent for his arguments — at the expense of his favorite target — Fox News. His point was that Americans were resistant to doing more for the poor because Fox had convinced them that the poor were unworthy of assistance thereby undermining support for government programs. But more than that, he saw this alleged sense of contempt as being linked to a belief in private initiative that he sees connected to the ills of the underprivileged. But there’s more to this issue than Obama’s trademark intolerance for criticism. At its heart, these statements tell us all we need to know about the president’s unwillingness to take responsibility for the state of the nation as well his refusal to think outside the conventional lines of liberal ideology.

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Yesterday, during a conversation about poverty at the Catholic-Evangelical Summit at Georgetown University, President Obama employed his favorite rhetorical device — a straw man opponent for his arguments — at the expense of his favorite target — Fox News. His point was that Americans were resistant to doing more for the poor because Fox had convinced them that the poor were unworthy of assistance thereby undermining support for government programs. But more than that, he saw this alleged sense of contempt as being linked to a belief in private initiative that he sees connected to the ills of the underprivileged. But there’s more to this issue than Obama’s trademark intolerance for criticism. At its heart, these statements tell us all we need to know about the president’s unwillingness to take responsibility for the state of the nation as well his refusal to think outside the conventional lines of liberal ideology.

The most obvious conclusion to be drawn from this is how after more than six years in office, the president is still more interested in blaming the messenger and creating a scapegoat rather than engaging with his critics. The difference between Fox’s coverage of his administration and that of many mainstream outlets is that it is not part of his cheering section. The notion that it demonizes the poor is unsubstantiated but the president’s invocation of the network isn’t meant to be part of an actual argument so much as it is a signal to his supporters that they are supposed to ignore contrary views or perspectives rather than listen to them. Though the president likes to pose as a public intellectual, he is remarkably resistant to advice even from his own side of the aisle and utterly intolerant of opposing views. From his perspective, Fox must be demonized and dismissed rather than engaged and argued with not because it’s reports are inaccurate but because anyone who watches it is open to the idea that Obama might be wrong.

But there is more to be gleaned from Obama’s remarks than a mere diversionary tactic. The problem with American poverty isn’t Fox’s coverage. The real issue is an administration that prefers to argue along these lines because of its stubborn and hypocritical devotion to the failed liberal patent nostrums of the past rather than trying creative solutions that might make things better.

The conversation about poverty has gained new urgency because of the recent riots in Baltimore which, coming soon after other protests relating to allegations of police brutality, has spawned a conversation about poverty and racism. But other than a sound byte at Fox’s expense which more or less won him the news cycle (and distracted some from the debacle on Capitol Hill where his own party spiked his effort to pass a trade bill), all the president seems to be willing to offer us is the same sort of big government liberalism that we’ve been getting from Democrats for the last 60 years with predictably dismal results.

The uncounted billions that have been spent on government “wars” on poverty have availed the nation but little. But rather than, as his predecessor Bill Clinton did for a while, own up to the fact that the era of big government was over, Obama is doubling down on the welfare state.

This is discouraging enough but what was truly disturbing was the president’s denigration of school choice options for the poor. Rather than supporting a measure that would give kids in failing inner city schools a lifeline to opportunity, the president castigated private schools as harming those who remain in the public system. More than that, he linked the idea of being educated outside of the public monopoly to “anti-government ideology.”

So when you come down to it, the problem isn’t just people watching Fox rather than liberal outlets marching in lockstep with his party but being taught in an environment not dominated by a belief in dependence on the government.

That a man who sends his own daughters to private school could denounce the efforts of those less well off than himself to get the same opportunity for their kids is an example of staggering, even Olympic-level hypocrisy. But even putting that aside the notion that the only way Americans can care about each other is if they are forced into public schools and other government entities is antithetical to the notions of individual freedom that this nation was founded upon.

More to the point, they are contrary to the basics of capitalism. The greatest engine of growth and destroyer of poverty is individual initiative and enterprise not compulsory involvement in communal institutions. More money won’t solve Baltimore’s problems or that of any other city. But better education, especially those schools that tap into the energy of individual parents and students and not government, do offer a solution.

The president likes to take credit for the economic recovery but he knows that it is plagued by endemic problems that have left many behind. But instead of addressing this, Obama and other liberals remain trapped in the ideology of the past, talking about inequality and serving failed liberal patent nostrums while ignoring or actively opposing ideas that offer a hopeful alternative. The problem isn’t a media that is insufficiently sympathetic to the poor or their self-styled champion in the White House. It’s Obama’s failed policies.

So don’t bother having sympathy for Fox News, whose enormous audience is more than enough compensation for presidential insults. If you want to be sorry for anyone, have some pity for the children of the poor that, unlike Sasha and Malia Obama, are being told to stay in failed public schools rather than getting a chance for something better.

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When Conservative School Reforms Work

Conservative education reformers are at several distinct disadvantages: union control of public education, the government’s broad power to protect its market dominance, restrictions on leveling the playing field between public and parochial schools, etc. Yet sometimes favored conservative policies succeed despite the institutional road blocks, and other times those road blocks inspire creative alternatives. Readers of today’s New York Times will find important examples of both.

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Conservative education reformers are at several distinct disadvantages: union control of public education, the government’s broad power to protect its market dominance, restrictions on leveling the playing field between public and parochial schools, etc. Yet sometimes favored conservative policies succeed despite the institutional road blocks, and other times those road blocks inspire creative alternatives. Readers of today’s New York Times will find important examples of both.

The first is a very long, but quite worthwhile feature on Eva Moskowitz’s New York charter-school phenomenon, the Success Academy schools. But conservatives should pay special attention to it because it’s not just about the concept of choice; it actually addresses a great weakness of conservative education reform as well.

Reformers on the right correctly note the unfairness and immoral nature of the current government-mandated segregation in the public-school system. They are also correct when they say that while school choice does tend to improve test scores in many cases, the case for school choice rests on more than just grades. Conservatives are dedicated proponents of equality of opportunity, and school choice, thanks to liberal policies, is one area where such equality is close to nonexistent.

But a crucial component of reform, and arguably the most challenging, is to change the actual classroom educational experience. The Times gives us a glimpse at one way Success tackles this issue:

In a rare look inside the network, including visits to several schools and interviews with dozens of current and former employees, The New York Times chronicled a system driven by the relentless pursuit of better results, one that can be exhilarating for teachers and students who keep up with its demands and agonizing for those who do not.

Rules are explicit and expectations precise. Students must sit with hands clasped and eyes following the speaker; reading passages must be neatly annotated with a main idea.

Incentives are offered, such as candy for good behavior, and Nerf guns and basketballs for high scores on practice tests. For those deemed not trying hard enough, there is “effort academy,” which is part detention, part study hall.

For teachers, who are not unionized and usually just out of college, 11-hour days are the norm, and each one is under constant monitoring, by principals who make frequent visits, and by databases that record quiz scores. Teachers who do well can expect quick promotions, with some becoming principals while still in their 20s. Teachers who struggle can expect coaching or, if that does not help, possible demotion.

Accountability for students and teachers–what a novel idea! And it gets results:

Though it serves primarily poor, mostly black and Hispanic students, Success is a testing dynamo, outscoring schools in many wealthy suburbs, let alone their urban counterparts. In New York City last year, 29 percent of public school students passed the state reading tests, and 35 percent passed the math tests. At Success schools, the corresponding percentages were 64 and 94 percent.

For disadvantaged students, throwing money at them isn’t what helps them succeed. Moskowitz may be a “self-proclaimed liberal,” but at this rate she may one day have a seat next to Milton Friedman in the conservative pantheon.

The Success Academy schools combine school choice with real classroom reform. And the schools live up to their name.

The other story in today’s Times about education is easier to miss because it’s less controversial. But it could have a meaningful impact if it catches on.

Some of the right’s frustration with race-based admissions is not only that they think college admissions should be colorblind but also that the left’s definition of “diversity” is entirely skin-deep. If you want to help struggling inner-city students, conservatives argue, wouldn’t you do better to base affirmative action policies around socioeconomic factors instead of skin color?

The political obstacles to such reform are obvious. So instead of waiting for government to take the lead, the market is moving in. Here’s the Times:

Top colleges have many reasons to avoid enrolling a lot of low-income students.

The students need financial aid, which can strain a university’s budget. Although many of the students have stellar grades, they often have somewhat lower SAT scores than affluent students, which can hurt a university’s ranking. Low-income students also tend to lack the campus sway of other groups, like athletes or children of alumni, in lobbying for admission slots.

In an effort to push back against these incentives — even just a little — a foundation in Northern Virginia on Tuesday is announcing a new no-strings-attached $1 million prize. It will be awarded each year to a college that excels in enrolling and graduating low-income high achievers. The inaugural winner of the money — from the Jack Kent Cooke Foundation, which also runs a large scholarship program — is Vassar College.

This strikes me as a very good idea, even if its effects will be marginal for now. And its focus not just on enrolling but on “graduating low-income high achievers” is important as well. One weakness of affirmative action, as proponents of the “mismatch” theory argue, is that enrolling students should not be treated as a stand-in for educating them, and in many cases bringing in students through affirmative action does them more harm than good.

Yet even if you don’t believe the mismatch theory, the genius of the Jack Kent Cooke program is that it doesn’t reallocate public resources. No one would object to incentivizing low-income students’ college graduation.

“Rather than spend the money to enroll lower-income students,” the Times’s David Leonhardt writes, “many colleges have instead built student bodies that are diverse in many other ways — geography, religion, ethnicity — but still overwhelmingly affluent.”

Indeed. The best of the American education system is too often off-limits to those who can’t afford it, and the government-inflated loan bubble, liberal opposition to school choice, and an admissions process that judges students on the color of their skin won’t change that. Conservatives are not the only ones advancing conservative education reforms, in yet another sign that the tide might be turning in favor of the disadvantaged students so ill-served by the existing educational order.

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‘The West Wing’ vs. ‘House of Cards’: Finding Truth in Fiction

The third season of the American adaptation of House of Cards is coming in for some harsh reviews. It earned them–this season was a mess. There were many contributing factors to this, but surely one of them was the fact that Frank Underwood began the season as president. That is, his rise to power was inherently more dramatic and interesting than his actual governing. In following this plot point, it earned some comparisons to The West Wing. But that’s unfair to The West Wing, and the reason has to do with what Americans see as dramatic when it comes to governing the United States–how we prefer to see ourselves and our political debates reflected back to us on the television screen.

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The third season of the American adaptation of House of Cards is coming in for some harsh reviews. It earned them–this season was a mess. There were many contributing factors to this, but surely one of them was the fact that Frank Underwood began the season as president. That is, his rise to power was inherently more dramatic and interesting than his actual governing. In following this plot point, it earned some comparisons to The West Wing. But that’s unfair to The West Wing, and the reason has to do with what Americans see as dramatic when it comes to governing the United States–how we prefer to see ourselves and our political debates reflected back to us on the television screen.

Over at the Washington Post’s Monkey Cage blog, Seth Masket sets out to show why, as the headline has it, “‘House of Cards’ is the worst show about American politics. Ever.” What he appears to mean is that House of Cards is the least-realistic show about American politics. He makes a convincing case. But it’s also worth keeping in mind that these shows are all unrealistic in their own ways. They’re fantasy. And although House of Cards plays out as The West Wing’s evil twin–meaner, edgier, and cynical–The West Wing, while cheesy, gets certain things right. Those things are not exciting, but they contain more truth about American politics than most competitors.

The West Wing was a liberal fantasy version of American politics with a Democratic president. But the fantasy was not about eliminating the competition or bulldozing Congress. The fantasy was defeating the GOP in the battle of ideas, and for it to be a true battle, conservative arguments had to be engaged and overcome with better arguments. It was intended to be a fair fight, and a civil fight, with battles the left didn’t always win.

There are three examples that stand out to me, though I imagine there are plenty more.

The first that comes to mind is an ongoing debate between presidential speechwriter Sam (played by Rob Lowe) and Mallory, who Sam is trying to woo. Mallory is the daughter of the chief of staff, Leo; to make trouble for Sam, Leo gives Mallory, who is a public-school teacher, a position paper Sam wrote defending school vouchers. Mallory is livid (the word “fascist” makes a couple of appearances). They go back and forth a few times throughout the episode, and have the following exchange (via West Wing Transcripts):

SAM

Mallory, everything that you’re saying makes sense. I just think that the state of urban schools is such that if you can save even one kid…

MALLORY

[stands] You can save more than one kid.

SAM

Tell me how.

MALLORY

By asking Congress to approve, not just a little, but a lot more money for public education.

Sam laughs.

MALLORY

What?

SAM [stands]

Public education has been a public policy disaster for 40 years. Having spent around four trillion dollars on public schools since 1965, the result has been a steady and inexorable decline in every measurable standard of student performance, to say nothing of health and safety. But don’t worry about it, because the U.S. House of Representatives is on the case. I feel better already.

MALLORY

[beat] Wow.

And again later:

SAM

It occurs to me Mallory, that you attended a private primary school, a private high school and a private college.

MALLORY

What’s your point?

SAM

Well, just that liberals have no problem with rich kids going to expensive private schools, that doesn’t undermine public education. And liberals have no problem with middle-class kids going to parochial schools, that doesn’t undermine public education.

MALLORY

Hang on!

SAM

The idea that letting poor public school students choose private alternatives would destroy public education is simply contrary to our experience.

Sam finally reveals later on that the position paper was “opposition prep”–Sam’s not pro-school choice, he’s just arguing that position for debate prep. Then he tells Mallory his real opinion on education reform:

Mallory, education is the silver bullet. Education is everything. We don’t need little changes. We need gigantic monumental changes. Schools should be palaces. The competition for the best teachers should be fierce. They should be making six-figure salaries. School should be incredibly expensive for government and absolutely free of charge to its citizens, just like national defense. That’s my position. I just haven’t figured out how to do it yet.

Now, who has the stronger position here? Is it the side that points out how government has failed public education and how money hasn’t solved the problem? And that liberals only seem to oppose private education for those who can’t afford it? And that the liberal position that school choice for poor students undermines education in America is not only unproven but contrary to the evidence we have?

Or is it the one that insists more money is necessary, a lot more money, because “schools should be palaces” and somehow “free” to taxpayers who are paying for it? And who hasn’t figured out how to get the money for this scheme? It’s incoherent, it’s unrealistic, and it flies in the face of the data on the subject, to say nothing of basic fairness. But it’s the liberal position. And on The West Wing, it loses the argument.

Another example: Josh, a presidential advisor, is being asked by his assistant, Donna, why Democrats oppose the Republican plan of giving back the budget surplus in tax relief:

“We have a $32 billion budget surplus for the first time in three decades.”

“Yes.”

“Republicans in Congress want to use this money for tax relief, right?”

“Yes.”

“So, essentially what they’re saying is they want to give back the money.”

“Yes.”

“Why don’t we want to give back the money?”

“Because we’re Democrats.”

“But it’s not the government’s money.”

“Sure it is, it’s right there in our bank account.”

Later in the episode, Donna reopens the argument:

“What’s wrong with me getting my money back?”

“You won’t spend it right.”

“What do you mean?”

“Let’s say your cut of the surplus is $700. I want to take your money and combine it with everybody else’s money and use it to pay down the debt and further endow social security. What do you want to do with it?”

“Buy a DVD player.”

“See?”

“But my $700 is helping employ the people who manufacture and sell DVD players. Not to mention the people who manufacture and sell DVDs. It’s the natural evolution of a market economy.”

“The problem is, the DVD player you buy might be made in Japan.”

“I’ll buy an American one.”

“We don’t trust you.”

“Why not?”

“We’re Democrats.”

And the third example occurs when the (Democratic) White House political team initiates efforts to come to a grand bargain to save entitlements. They need Republican buy-in, and they’re willing to make tough concessions if the Republicans match them each step of the way. But they’re encountering suspicion on the part of Republicans in Congress, and the Republican they really need, the guy who could lead such an effort on the right, is not in Congress anymore. A staffer asks one of the presidential advisors what happened to him. The advisor responds:

Josh and I wrote a TV ad that destroyed his career. We figured if we won his seat, maybe a half dozen others, got more Democrats in Congress, we’d be able to get something done around here.

To recap: the first example is a liberal losing an important argument, and badly. The second is some welcome self-awareness, on the part of Democrats writing and consulting on the show, that some of their policies sound awfully ridiculous when you say them out loud. And the third is contrition, an acknowledgement that the throw-grandma-off-the-cliff advertising Democrats do whenever Republicans want to reform an entitlement and are willing to take political risks to do so erodes trust and paves the way to crisis.

Now, obviously these are exceptions on the show, not the rule. The Democrats usually won. But the point is that shows about American politics display their un-realism in different ways. House of Cards was unrealistic in a deeply cynical way. The West Wing was unrealistic in a naïve way. But the naïve way ended up being closer to home because it at least spoke the language of American politics. House of Cards doesn’t.

I also chose those West Wing examples for another reason. In the first and third examples, the problem doesn’t get solved at all; in the second the Democrats’ position shows that sometimes power trumps principle. There are limits to pretty words and fair play.

Neither The West Wing nor House of Cards is a realistic depiction of American politics. But the America of The West Wing was at least recognizable, especially if you were paying attention.

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Want to Reach Out to Minorities? GOP Must Prioritize School Choice.

Republicans continue to beat themselves up about their need to do better among minorities. But unfortunately for the GOP, most of the outreach that’s been tried seems to rest primarily on pandering, whether on immigration to Hispanics or thinking that merely showing up at a hostile venue, as Rand Paul has done, will be enough to win the votes of people who believe Republicans are inveterately hostile to their interests. But there is an issue of paramount importance to minorities, especially the poor, that is just waiting for Republicans to seize in the next election: school choice. With Democrats effectively chained to the teachers’ unions because of their financial support for their campaigns, the cause of giving parents the ability to take their children out of failing public schools is the true civil-rights issue of the 21st century.

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Republicans continue to beat themselves up about their need to do better among minorities. But unfortunately for the GOP, most of the outreach that’s been tried seems to rest primarily on pandering, whether on immigration to Hispanics or thinking that merely showing up at a hostile venue, as Rand Paul has done, will be enough to win the votes of people who believe Republicans are inveterately hostile to their interests. But there is an issue of paramount importance to minorities, especially the poor, that is just waiting for Republicans to seize in the next election: school choice. With Democrats effectively chained to the teachers’ unions because of their financial support for their campaigns, the cause of giving parents the ability to take their children out of failing public schools is the true civil-rights issue of the 21st century.

A discussion of school choice as a civil-rights issue is something you aren’t likely to hear much about in the mainstream media. Indeed, outside of Fox News, you probably haven’t heard much about the issue, even in the week designated as “School Choice Week” by advocates. They got something of a boost from House Speaker John Boehner, a longtime supporter of the cause, who hosted an event on Capitol Hill that got almost no national coverage. But while racial hucksters like Al Sharpton and his enablers in the Obama administration seek to exploit violent tragedies to promote division, they pay little or no attention to the priorities of struggling families whose most urgent need is to provide a decent education for their children.

Indeed, it is a scandal that one of the most ambitious experiments in school choice—a vouchers program in the nation’s capital that gave underprivileged kids chances to go to good private schools such as the one that the First Family’s kids attend—was sunk by President Obama and a Democrat-controlled Congress in his first term. Around the country, families line up to take part in lotteries for chances for a place in charter schools and other alternatives to their local public institutions and face odds that generally range from one out of 300 or worse.

But long after it became apparent that competition and increased parental involvement made other choices—whether charter schools or private alternatives—give kids more of a chance to succeed, the teachers’ unions continue to obstruct or sink efforts to promote school choice. Wherever their Democratic Party allies prevail—whether in the White House or in places like New York City where Mayor Bill de Blasio has made good on his campaign promises to the unions and has worked to diminish school choice—children remain trapped and the nation suffers.

Without a good education, minority and poor kids have a dim future. Demonstrations against law enforcement and demonizing the police are a poor substitute for real hope, but that is exactly the bargain that the president and the rest of his party have been offering some of their most loyal voters.

GOP candidates who want to really reach out to minorities to need start and end with education reform that isn’t held hostage to unions that care more about tenure and avoiding holding poor teachers accountable for their performance. Democrats are chained to those unions. That is an opening Republicans should exploit.

Rather than paying lip service to the goal of outreach, conservatives need to realize that this issue is their best, perhaps their only, opportunity to break through to minority voters. Instead of letting it be a throwaway line in speeches with no follow up, they need to start prioritizing school choice from now until November 2016.

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The Real Significance of Cuomo’s Attack on Teachers Unions

It is tempting to play one of those “Pop quiz: who said this?” games with Andrew Cuomo’s comments on teachers unions. The Democratic governor of New York sat down with the New York Daily News editorial board, and he fielded some questions on education. Here are some highlights, in which Cuomo puts his typical tough-guy flourish on what are usually considered right-wing declarations:

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It is tempting to play one of those “Pop quiz: who said this?” games with Andrew Cuomo’s comments on teachers unions. The Democratic governor of New York sat down with the New York Daily News editorial board, and he fielded some questions on education. Here are some highlights, in which Cuomo puts his typical tough-guy flourish on what are usually considered right-wing declarations:

On the lost purpose of strong public educational institutions: “This was never a teacher employment program and this was never an industry to hire superintendents and teachers. This was a program to educate kids.”

On his response to a teachers union member declaring that the union represents the students: “You represent the teachers. Teacher salaries, teacher pensions, teacher tenure, teacher vacation rights. I respect that. But don’t say you represent the students.”

On whether they deserve more respect from him: “I want to treat them with more respect than they have now, but it has to be on the performance and the merits.”

There is much more, and the whole Daily News writeup of the conversation is worth reading. In some ways, though, the less aggressive comments of Cuomo’s could be the more important ones, at least as far as determining the extent of the ripple effects of his open challenge to the unions.

That’s because his criticism of the unions went beyond policy. Here he is on transparency:

During an appearance before the Daily News Editorial Board, Cuomo said the only way change will come to a broken education system is if the public is better informed.

“If (the public) understood what was happening with education to their children, there would be an outrage in this city,” Cuomo said. “I’m telling you, they would take City Hall down brick by brick.

“It’s only because it’s complicated that people don’t get it.”

This line of argument, if the parents only knew, is at the center of limited-government conservatives’ arguments about the state and bureaucracy. Cuomo’s specific charges may be limited in scope, but he’s invoking a philosophically conservative outlook to make his case.

It’s easy, for example, to substitute virtually anything controlled and heavily regulated by the state for “education” in his above quote. “If (the public) understood what was happening with …” is a kind of Tea Party Mad Libs–and rightfully so. One of the main problems with the administrative state is that the government makes it practically impossible for non-experts to navigate the laws that affect them. Legislation is written the way it is precisely for this reason: because if the people only knew, they’d be outraged.

When it comes to education, there are two major problems with the public system with regard to Cuomo’s complaint about secrecy and complexity. The first is that the government and its cronies are enriched by the process, and have more to gain by shielding their actions from sunlight. The other is that the government doesn’t trust parents to raise their own children. And that, in turn, encourages parents to impart that same message to their kids: that they can’t be trusted with independence and cannot exercise personal responsibility.

What Cuomo is suggesting–or, rather, implying would be more accurate–is that parents should flip the script. That would be the result of taking his complaints to their logical conclusion. Why should parents blindly trust the government with their children but have to prove themselves worthy of the government’s trust as parents? It’s ludicrous, authoritarian, and corrosive to civil society.

Instead, the government should have to earn the public’s trust. If the state wants to control much of your children’s lives until adulthood–and that is precisely what the public education monopoly is designed to do–then the state ought to prove its own worthiness. And this means not just transparency but a true market (or something closer to it) in education.

The government should have competition. “Trust us” is not good enough. Parents should know exactly what the public education system is doing and why, and they should have a greater say in it. But even more importantly, they should have other options, so that the government schools can prove themselves worthy of having the amount of control they have over the nation’s youth.

As for Cuomo, his fellow Democrats will certainly be watching closely to see how this plays out. And so will, for that matter, Republican governors. It has been the latter, after all, pressing much-needed reforms to public unions, albeit often in blue states. But a Democrat taking up the reform fight in a deep-blue state is evidence of the strength of the arguments on the side of reform.

Cuomo doesn’t need this trouble. But unions have made such a wreck of the public school system and wasted so much money in doing so that it’s become impossible for any but the most zealous defenders of the status quo to deny. Cuomo will certainly be feeling the wrath of the unions. But their quest to stop him in his tracks will be complicated by the fact that everything he said about them is true.

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The Unions’ Warning to Hillary Clinton

Arne Duncan can rest easy. The current secretary of education has lately been on the receiving end of the pitchforks-and-torches treatment from the major national teachers unions, but he’s not really the target. They are calling for his job, not because they expect to radically alter the course of this administration but to encourage the others, as they say.

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Arne Duncan can rest easy. The current secretary of education has lately been on the receiving end of the pitchforks-and-torches treatment from the major national teachers unions, but he’s not really the target. They are calling for his job, not because they expect to radically alter the course of this administration but to encourage the others, as they say.

To recap: the Obama administration has been sufficiently deferential to the public unions that fleece the taxpayers to get Democrats elected at the state and national levels. The president’s hypocrisy on school choice is not only a sop to the unions but particularly glaring–it’s not unusual for a president to send his kids to private school, but it is rare that one does so while working assiduously to end opportunity scholarship programs in the same city simultaneously.

President Obama’s choice for education secretary, however, made the unions slightly nervous. Obama calmed their nerves by making sure that Duncan would simply carry out Obama’s antichoice crusade and not think too much for himself. But Duncan spooked the unions recently by saying something that is anathema to Democrats even if it was commonsense by any reasonable standard.

Last month, a California court ruled unconstitutional the union protections that made it virtually impossible to fire bad teachers and which have steadily degraded the quality of education in America’s public schools. This was a victory especially for poor and minority students, which tend to be harmed the most by the Democrats’ education policies. The courts were a last recourse for these students, thanks to the policymaking stranglehold the unions have over the state’s Democrats. Duncan understood that this kind of ruling was the only way to effect real change, by forcing the hand of the school systems:

The ruling was hailed by the nation’s top education chief as bringing to California — and possibly the nation — an opportunity to build “a new framework for the teaching profession.” The decision represented “a mandate” to fix a broken teaching system, U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan said. …

Duncan, a former schools chief in Chicago, said he hoped the ruling will spark a national dialogue on a teacher tenure process “that is fair, thoughtful, practical and swift.”

At a minimum, Duncan said the court decision, if upheld, will bring to California “a new framework for the teaching profession that protects students’ rights to equal educational opportunities while providing teachers the support, respect and rewarding careers they deserve.”

“The students who brought this lawsuit are, unfortunately, just nine out of millions of young people in America who are disadvantaged by laws, practices and systems that fail to identify and support our best teachers and match them with our neediest students. Today’s court decision is a mandate to fix these problems,” Duncan said.

But teachers unions have mostly become a job preservation program, with the education of the students a secondary, at best, concern. So they lashed out at Duncan for defending the minority students over which the unions were running roughshod. In other words, for doing (at least part of) his job:

Delegates of the National Education Association adopted a business item July 4 at its annual convention in Denver that called for his resignation. The vote underscores the long-standing tension between the Obama administration and teachers’ unions — historically a steadfast Democratic ally.

A tipping point for some members was Duncan’s statement last month in support of a California judge’s ruling that struck down tenure and other job protections for the state’s public school teachers. In harsh wording, the judge said such laws harm particularly low-income students by saddling them with bad teachers who are almost impossible to fire.

Now the American Federation of Teachers has joined the mob, yesterday approving a resolution calling for his job–unless Duncan follows the unions’ proposed rehabilitation process, erasing even the façade of independence the administration would have from its union benefactors.

Duncan is to be commended for his comments. And he can take solace in the fact that the NEA and AFT attempts to wreck his career are not really about him anyway–a fact the reporting about this contretemps tends to miss. They are, instead, a warning shot. The unions want Hillary Clinton, or whoever turns out to be their next nominee, to see where the unions have drawn the line for a future White House. And Duncan is on the wrong side of that line.

For the teachers unions, anyway. He’s on the right side of that line for the country, and for public education. The unions aren’t interested in saving this particular ship, as long as their leaders and veteran teachers are guaranteed a lifeboat and a generous pension when it finally sinks.

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Union Leader’s About-Face on School Choice

Despite the Obama administration’s best efforts, union membership remains at all-time lows. Meanwhile, public disapproval of labor unions is near all-time highs. Teachers’ unions have been a main catalyst of public antipathy. During the last presidential election campaign, Gov. Mitt Romney tried to make teachers’ unions a lightning rod to rally support. New Jersey Governor Chris Christie has likewise used antipathy toward teachers’ unions as a populist tool.

One of the reasons why teachers’ unions have become such a lightning rod is the belief, even among many who would normally be pro-labor, is the sense that teachers’ unions pit membership interest above that of children. Nowhere has this become more apparent than with the case of school vouchers which allow otherwise underprivileged youth or those stuck in poorly performing districts a chance at a better education. While many underprivileged students have sought to take advantage of these vouchers, teachers’ unions have uniformly opposed them. Here, for example, is the National Education Association position on vouchers and here is the American Federation of Teachers’ position.

How refreshing it is to see a union leader, even if retired, rethink his position and put kids first. George Parker used to be president of the Washington Teachers Union, and is a 30-year veteran teacher of the Washington D.C. school system. Writing last month in the Tennessean, here is what he had to say:

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Despite the Obama administration’s best efforts, union membership remains at all-time lows. Meanwhile, public disapproval of labor unions is near all-time highs. Teachers’ unions have been a main catalyst of public antipathy. During the last presidential election campaign, Gov. Mitt Romney tried to make teachers’ unions a lightning rod to rally support. New Jersey Governor Chris Christie has likewise used antipathy toward teachers’ unions as a populist tool.

One of the reasons why teachers’ unions have become such a lightning rod is the belief, even among many who would normally be pro-labor, is the sense that teachers’ unions pit membership interest above that of children. Nowhere has this become more apparent than with the case of school vouchers which allow otherwise underprivileged youth or those stuck in poorly performing districts a chance at a better education. While many underprivileged students have sought to take advantage of these vouchers, teachers’ unions have uniformly opposed them. Here, for example, is the National Education Association position on vouchers and here is the American Federation of Teachers’ position.

How refreshing it is to see a union leader, even if retired, rethink his position and put kids first. George Parker used to be president of the Washington Teachers Union, and is a 30-year veteran teacher of the Washington D.C. school system. Writing last month in the Tennessean, here is what he had to say:

My change of heart boiled down to this: I realized my opposition to opportunity scholarships was based on prioritizing adult interests above those of kids. As a former union leader, I made maintaining union influence and power a greater priority than meeting the educational needs of parents and students. But seeing firsthand the positive impact that D.C.’s federally funded voucher program had on many families — especially those of color and limited means — compelled me to rethink my position.

He then gives three reasons why school vouchers work:

First, it puts more power back in the hands of parents, where it belongs. I think we can all agree that parents should have the biggest voice in deciding what type of school is best for their child. Second, expanding school choice helps level the playing field by giving low-income families the same options as high-income ones. Opportunity scholarships will be a godsend for disadvantaged families who cannot afford private school, or to move to a community with better public options. Third, and most importantly, opportunity scholarships work. Similar programs in other states report greater levels of student achievement and parental satisfaction.

Let us hope that his former colleagues will have a similar change of heart. At the very least, his litmus test of what benefits students should become the key litmus test for anyone concerned about the state of public education in the United States, whether they are parents, community leaders, non-unionized teachers, or, indeed, teachers’ unions as well.

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The Liberal Slandering of Paul Ryan

If you want to know how fearful the left is of Paul Ryan, consider the efforts they make to slander him. In the past, they’ve portrayed him as someone eager to (literally) throw grandma over a cliff. The reason? Ryan wanted to make eminently sensible and absolutely necessary changes to Medicare.

Then came Barack Obama, who, when describing Ryan’s budget, made recklessly untrue assertions, saying (among other things) that Republicans want the elderly and autistic and Down syndrome children to “fend for themselves.”

And now, as Jonathan Tobin has written, comes the latest attempted mugging of Ryan, this time for what he said on Bill Bennett’s “Morning in America” program last week. When discussing his forthcoming effort to combat poverty, the House Budget Committee chairman and 2012 GOP vice presidential candidate said this:

We have got this tailspin of culture, in our inner cities in particular, of men not working and just generations of men not even thinking about working or learning the value and the culture of work, and so there is a real culture problem here that has to be dealt with.

The left immediately attacked. Some, like Representative Barbara Lee, accused Ryan of mounting a “thinly veiled racial attack”–one that “cannot be tolerated.” Others, like New York Times columnist Paul Krugman, wrote that Ryan’s words amounted to a “racial dog whistle.”

These charges, and there are plenty of others like them, are grotesquely false. I have known Ryan since he was a colleague at Empower America in the 1990s. One of the reasons he was so close to both Bennett and Jack Kemp is because Ryan had a deep concern for those living in the shadows of society, including in America’s inner cities. He also believes Republicans have not focused enough on the problems plaguing the underclass. Both help explain his latest effort to offer conservative solutions to rising poverty. 

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If you want to know how fearful the left is of Paul Ryan, consider the efforts they make to slander him. In the past, they’ve portrayed him as someone eager to (literally) throw grandma over a cliff. The reason? Ryan wanted to make eminently sensible and absolutely necessary changes to Medicare.

Then came Barack Obama, who, when describing Ryan’s budget, made recklessly untrue assertions, saying (among other things) that Republicans want the elderly and autistic and Down syndrome children to “fend for themselves.”

And now, as Jonathan Tobin has written, comes the latest attempted mugging of Ryan, this time for what he said on Bill Bennett’s “Morning in America” program last week. When discussing his forthcoming effort to combat poverty, the House Budget Committee chairman and 2012 GOP vice presidential candidate said this:

We have got this tailspin of culture, in our inner cities in particular, of men not working and just generations of men not even thinking about working or learning the value and the culture of work, and so there is a real culture problem here that has to be dealt with.

The left immediately attacked. Some, like Representative Barbara Lee, accused Ryan of mounting a “thinly veiled racial attack”–one that “cannot be tolerated.” Others, like New York Times columnist Paul Krugman, wrote that Ryan’s words amounted to a “racial dog whistle.”

These charges, and there are plenty of others like them, are grotesquely false. I have known Ryan since he was a colleague at Empower America in the 1990s. One of the reasons he was so close to both Bennett and Jack Kemp is because Ryan had a deep concern for those living in the shadows of society, including in America’s inner cities. He also believes Republicans have not focused enough on the problems plaguing the underclass. Both help explain his latest effort to offer conservative solutions to rising poverty. 

It should matter that what Ryan told Bennett is true, as anyone who has spent time in America’s inner cities and working with kids there can testify. The reasons for the hardships facing those living in America’s inner cities are complicated and not simply cultural; they are economic as well. But to say that there isn’t a problematic culture that has taken root in America’s inner cities is a lie; and to attack those like Ryan who speak about it is to compound the lie.

Why are some liberals doing this? For one thing, they are intellectually exhausted. They know they cannot win the debate on the merits, and so they resort to ad hominem attacks. It is what some on the left instantaneously resort to. Mr. Krugman is a prime example of this. He is a man who seems to gain energy from nursing his political hatreds and takes delight in degrading political commentary. (The latter isn’t an easy achievement.) 

But as Jonathan points out, there’s something more fundamental going on here. Liberals who have complicity in the problems plaguing America’s inner cities are attempting to make an honest conversation about poverty impossible. They are signaling that they intend to try to take out Republicans who want to address some of the root causes, the behavioral causes, of poverty.

The danger here is two-fold. One is that by promiscuously invoking racism when it doesn’t apply, they are draining the term of real meaning. Many people already have stopped, and many more will stop, paying attention when the term is so carelessly bandied about.

The other is that some on the left not only aren’t focusing on the institutions, policies, and individuals who are responsible for exacerbating poverty; they are actually building a protective wall around them. For them the villain isn’t, say, the ruinous public school systems in Chicago, Detroit, and D.C. that are destroying the lives and future of hundreds of thousands of kids; it’s Paul Ryan, who among other things supports school choice for inner-city parents. This is what large parts of liberalism have been reduced to: the praetorian guard of corrupt, poverty-creating institutions and organizations.

Paul Ryan is among the most decent and admirable politicians in America. He’s also among the smartest. Which explains the obsession and hatred many on the left have with him. He’s a threat to their ideas, to their policies, and ultimately to their power. The viciousness of their attacks is a testimony to his effectiveness. What was said by those who supported Franklin Roosevelt can also be said by those who admire Paul Ryan: We love you for the enemies you have made.

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The Case Against Louisiana’s School Choice Program Crumbles

The school choice movement’s prospects can sometimes be measured by the quality of the arguments deployed against them. Egged on by organized labor, big-government Democrats have shunted aside their supposed concern for basic fairness in the service of preserving a flailing government education monopoly. Sometimes, the government couches its case against poor students in terms of “saving” public schools or reinforcing the separation of church and state.

But sometimes, the government is simply out of ammo and engages in the intellectual and legal equivalent of throwing a shoe. That’s what the Obama administration did when it dispatched Eric Holder’s Justice Department to make a sensationally offensive and clownishly ill-reasoned case against the Louisiana school choice program. It was desperation, pure and simple. And it should have been a humbling moment for the administration, a good time for the government to look itself in the mirror and wonder what it has become.

I wrote about this case back in August. Briefly, Louisiana put into place a program to give private-school vouchers to low-income students in failing public schools. Deprived of any meritorious argument against it, the Justice Department petitioned a district court to enjoin the state from offering scholarships to students from schools that are still under federal desegregation orders. The Holder Justice Department’s logic, such as it is, portrayed the voucher program as disrupting the racial balance of the schools by pulling minority students out of majority-white schools.

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The school choice movement’s prospects can sometimes be measured by the quality of the arguments deployed against them. Egged on by organized labor, big-government Democrats have shunted aside their supposed concern for basic fairness in the service of preserving a flailing government education monopoly. Sometimes, the government couches its case against poor students in terms of “saving” public schools or reinforcing the separation of church and state.

But sometimes, the government is simply out of ammo and engages in the intellectual and legal equivalent of throwing a shoe. That’s what the Obama administration did when it dispatched Eric Holder’s Justice Department to make a sensationally offensive and clownishly ill-reasoned case against the Louisiana school choice program. It was desperation, pure and simple. And it should have been a humbling moment for the administration, a good time for the government to look itself in the mirror and wonder what it has become.

I wrote about this case back in August. Briefly, Louisiana put into place a program to give private-school vouchers to low-income students in failing public schools. Deprived of any meritorious argument against it, the Justice Department petitioned a district court to enjoin the state from offering scholarships to students from schools that are still under federal desegregation orders. The Holder Justice Department’s logic, such as it is, portrayed the voucher program as disrupting the racial balance of the schools by pulling minority students out of majority-white schools.

As I wrote, this was a terrible and shameful argument. But thanks to two new studies, we also know that it is demonstrably false, and the government should drop its case against Louisiana’s minority students immediately:

The first study conducted out of the University of Arkansas found that these transfers overwhelmingly improved integration in the public schools that students leave as well as the private schools that participating students attend.

Of the 5,000 students who used LSP vouchers in the 2012-13 school year, all were from families with incomes less than 250 percent of the federal poverty line, and about 90 percent were black.

Specifically, the Arkansas study found, just 17 percent of LSP schools are racially homogenous, compared to over one-third of public schools that previously enrolled these students. In 83 percent of cases, an overwhelming majority, LSP transfers had a positive impact on the racial integration of the student’s original public school.

“Based on this evidence, we conclude that the LSP is unlikely to have harmed desegregation efforts in Louisiana,” the authors write. “To the contrary, the statewide school voucher program appears to have brought greater integration to Louisiana’s public schools.”

These findings were validated by a separate study by Christine Rossell of Boston University who was retained to analyze data for the DOJ case. Rossell concludes, “The 2012-13 Louisiana scholarship program to date has no negative effect on school desegregation in the 34 school districts under a desegregation court order.”

This should be the end of what was truly an act of desperation from a government agency convinced its will could not be disobeyed. And at the heart of this was a distorted view of desegregation and its purposes. Most of the students benefiting from this program are black. Holder’s DOJ argued that this means that a disproportionate number of black students are being given the opportunity to flee failing schools for better ones, leaving fewer black students behind.

To Holder’s DOJ, the “racial balance” of failing government schools is more important than actually improving life for racial minorities, which is what Bobby Jindal and the state’s leaders were trying to do. But now we know that the “racial balance” argument is a fallacy anyway. The school choice program improves both racial balance in schools and the educational freedom of the state’s minority students.

The government’s argument for suppressing minorities’ educational opportunities has completely dissolved. They should drop this case, accept the principle of equal educational opportunity for minorities, and get out of the way.

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Bloomberg’s Exit and the Future of Education Reform

There are a number of obstacles to being able to draw generalizations about New York City voters from the results of the mayoral primary elections. Such obstacles include the factional nature of city elections, the prominent role of identity politics in a multicultural city, and the challenges of polling such elections.

There is also the low voter turnout for primaries, as summed up succinctly by Daily News Opinion Editor Josh Greenman, responding to assumptions that the Democratic primary was a referendum on Mayor Michael Bloomberg: “Last night was huge rebuke of Bloomberg? No. Just 20% of Democrats voted, and 48% of them told exit pollsters they approve of job he’s done,” Greenman tweeted.

So Bill de Blasio’s victory last night may not have meant much about New York voters overall, but that’s not how opponents of choice in education see it. Politico reports:

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There are a number of obstacles to being able to draw generalizations about New York City voters from the results of the mayoral primary elections. Such obstacles include the factional nature of city elections, the prominent role of identity politics in a multicultural city, and the challenges of polling such elections.

There is also the low voter turnout for primaries, as summed up succinctly by Daily News Opinion Editor Josh Greenman, responding to assumptions that the Democratic primary was a referendum on Mayor Michael Bloomberg: “Last night was huge rebuke of Bloomberg? No. Just 20% of Democrats voted, and 48% of them told exit pollsters they approve of job he’s done,” Greenman tweeted.

So Bill de Blasio’s victory last night may not have meant much about New York voters overall, but that’s not how opponents of choice in education see it. Politico reports:

De Blasio’s education platform boiled down, in effect, to a pledge to dismantle the policies that Mayor Michael Bloomberg enacted over the past decade in the nation’s largest school district.

Those policies, emphasizing the need to inject more free-market competition into public education and weaken the power of teachers unions, are not unique to New York City; they’re the backbone of a national education reform movement that has won broad bipartisan support. Yet the reform movement has also triggered a backlash from parents and teachers who see it as a threat to their schools, their jobs and the traditional concept of public education as a public trust.

For those activists, de Blasio’s victory – coming on top of a handful of other recent wins for their side – is a sign the tide might slowly be turning.

The article cites the successful anti-reform movement galvanized to oust Adrian Fenty in Washington D.C., though there have been victories for the school choice movement since then, and certainly victories in reining in union power. Those victories owe something to the financial crisis and increasing government debt, a fiscal backdrop that turned the hoary liberal clichés of “fair share” and inequality against Democratic interest groups like public unions, whose job security and generous health and retirement benefits are financed by increasingly struggling taxpayers.

Put simply, the public unions’ math never added up, and they could not win the argument that they had a right to bankrupt their states because of benefits they won from favored politicians. That’s why reform-minded governors had an easier time getting union members to contribute more to their own benefits than in measures designed to curtail unions’ political organization and clout. The unions are betting that without a fiscal sword of Damocles hanging over their heads the public will lose interest in this fight, and they can turn the momentum away from dismantling a major source of their funding: the failing government monopoly on childhood education.

If the unions are able to decouple financial concerns from those related to political organization, proponents of education reform will need to be able to win an argument over the latter to stop the tide from turning. How to openly attempt to disempower public unions without appearing to be motivated solely by the lure of partisan advantage? True independents on the issue are likely to be swayed to whichever side they believe is representing the best interests of the students.

It’s easy to argue that teachers’ protected salaries and high benefits can hurt the students by forcing cuts in other areas, such as books, computers, tutoring, or sports programs, that fall on the backs of the students. But there hasn’t been much of an attempt to argue the political power of the unions per se harms the education of the students. Some, however, are beginning to do just that. The Heartland Institute draws attention to a new study from the University of Chicago’s Johnathan Lott and the University of Florida’s Lawrence W. Kenny that finds that “students in states with strong teachers unions have lower proficiency rates than students in states with weak state-wide teacher unions.”

From the conclusion:

Strong unions should have a greater impact on student proficiency rates in math and reading than weak unions. The small literature on union strength has used district-level variables – the size of the district and the restrictiveness of the district contract – as measures of union strength. But state-wide teachers’ unions are often successful in influencing state regulations on education by being the major contributors to candidates for the state legislature. The state-wide teachers’ unions that contribute more are expected to exercise more influence and thus be stronger unions. We may be the first to use the state-wide teachers’ union financial resources as a measure of union strength and find that students in states in which the teachers’ union has high dues and high spending have lower test scores than students in states with low dues and spending. Union strength matters and indeed matters more than any other variable in our regressions.

Beyond the moral and financial cases for school choice and broader education reform lies the most important issue: the effect of public policy on the actual education received by the students. If liberal politicians like de Blasio are going to try to push the momentum back in favor of their union allies, reformers should be able to argue persuasively that it will come at the expense of the students.

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The Disparate Impact of Holder’s War on Private Schools

As we approach the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington, the civil-rights milestone will continue to loom large in the ideological media. The right will talk about how much progress we’ve made, the left will talk about how far we have to go, and the president himself will give a speech marking the occasion this week in which he’ll talk both about the progress and the ground that must still be covered. His speech will be all the more powerful for the obvious symbolism, though the speech text will likely be thoughtful and somewhat moving in addition.

It is also a speech to which the president’s attorney general, Eric Holder, should listen carefully. His latest crusade is to sue the state of Louisiana for giving black students in failing public schools vouchers to attend better schools on the grounds that the voucher program is resegregating Louisiana’s public schools. That is not an exaggeration, and I have to admit to being somewhat hesitant to even write about this for fear that Holder is kidding–because, well, he has got to be kidding.

Here, for example, is the Holder DOJ’s logic, as expressed in a petition to get the district court to enjoin the state from awarding additional scholarships to students from school districts still under federal desegregation orders:

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As we approach the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington, the civil-rights milestone will continue to loom large in the ideological media. The right will talk about how much progress we’ve made, the left will talk about how far we have to go, and the president himself will give a speech marking the occasion this week in which he’ll talk both about the progress and the ground that must still be covered. His speech will be all the more powerful for the obvious symbolism, though the speech text will likely be thoughtful and somewhat moving in addition.

It is also a speech to which the president’s attorney general, Eric Holder, should listen carefully. His latest crusade is to sue the state of Louisiana for giving black students in failing public schools vouchers to attend better schools on the grounds that the voucher program is resegregating Louisiana’s public schools. That is not an exaggeration, and I have to admit to being somewhat hesitant to even write about this for fear that Holder is kidding–because, well, he has got to be kidding.

Here, for example, is the Holder DOJ’s logic, as expressed in a petition to get the district court to enjoin the state from awarding additional scholarships to students from school districts still under federal desegregation orders:

For example, in 2011-2012, Celilia Primary School in St. Martin Parish School District enrolled a student body that was 30.1 percent black, 16.4 [sic] percentage points lower than the black composition (64.5 percent) of St. Martin Parish School District as a whole. In 2012-2013 Celilia lost six black students as a result of the voucher program, thereby increasing the difference between the school’s black student percentage from the district’s and reinforcing the school’s racial identity as a white school in a predominantly black school district.

Got that? The school had a “racial identity” as a white school, and the state of Louisiana awarded scholarships to a group of black students to get them out of the white failing school and into a better private school. According to Eric Holder’s Justice Department, the Louisiana voucher program gave private school vouchers to too many black students. What this means in practice is that Holder would not challenge them on segregation grounds if, merely because of their race, the state allotted fewer vouchers to black students in favor of giving the scholarships to white students.

But the DOJ wasn’t done. The Justice Department wants to appear to be an equal-opportunity offender, crushing the hopes and educational futures of children of all races. So the DOJ found a school that the United States federal government says has too many black students and criticized the voucher program for selecting white students:

Similarly, the Independence Elementary School in Tangipahoa Parish School District enrolled a student body that was 61.5 percent black, which was only 14 percentage points greater than that of Tangipahoa Parish School District (47.5 percent black), but it lost five white students as a result of the voucher program and, thus, increased its black student percentage away from the district-wide black student percentage, again reinforcing the racial identity of the school as a black school.

But of course Holder isn’t an equal-opportunity offender: black students are absorbing the brunt of the Justice Department’s crusade against education. As the state explained:

While the federal petition would let courts approve vouchers in those school systems next year, Brian Blackwell, attorney for the Louisiana Association of Educators, said it likely would take a lot of time, effort and evidence to persuade the judges.

State Education Superintendent John White took issue with the suit’s primary argument and its characterization of the program. Almost all the students using vouchers are black, he said. Given that framework, “it’s a little ridiculous” to argue that students’ departure to voucher schools makes their home school systems less white, he said. He also thought it ironic that rules set up to combat racism were being called on to keep black students in failing schools.

Almost all the students using vouchers are black, according to the superintendent. This is a program largely designed to find ways to get black students stuck in failing schools an education. The government’s public-school monopoly, designed to enrich union bosses, is failing. The Louisiana government, under the leadership of Governor Bobby Jindal, isn’t willing to give up on those students, and is throwing them a rope. The United States Department of Justice, under the leadership of Eric Holder, will do anything to cut that rope.

The left likes to talk a lot about disparate impact. In ruling against the NYPD’s stop and frisk program, Judge Shira Scheindlin even found a new term for it–“indirect racial profiling.” So imagine what Democrats would make of a policy that disproportionately harmed black students trying to get a decent education if the partisan roles were reversed. In some ways, then, it’s appropriate that this incident coincides with the anniversary of a key moment in the fight for civil rights for black Americans. No one watching the behavior of this Justice Department, after all, could claim there are no longer government-sanctioned obstacles in their way.

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Another Question for Education Reformers

In a 2010 essay for National Affairs, Frederick Hess tackled a very difficult question: does school choice work? It’s not so easy to answer, for a few reasons: long-term studies are fewer and farther between; there are different kinds of “school choice” and different ways to offer and administer such opportunities; and most considerations of school choice effects don’t really measure, say, the difference in safety and security for students who may be performing about average in their new environment but do not fear for their lives going to and from school each day.

But the simple fact that we’re still asking the question–or using alternative methods to grade progress–suggests at the very least that the fledgling school choice movement has not met its expectations. Those in favor of school choice respond, correctly, that the evidence shows plenty of encouraging signs for properly designed school choice programs, and that efforts by school choice opponents to limit and obstruct the process plays its own part in obscuring the efficacy of school choice. There is also the simple element of fairness and equality of opportunity: why should poor Americans have fewer educational opportunities than others? But the mixed results on school choice also shine a light on one very important–and often overlooked–aspect of education reform: curriculum matters a great deal. Conservatives worried about the state of American education have to be prepared to tackle the question of not only where the students should learn, but what they should learn.

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In a 2010 essay for National Affairs, Frederick Hess tackled a very difficult question: does school choice work? It’s not so easy to answer, for a few reasons: long-term studies are fewer and farther between; there are different kinds of “school choice” and different ways to offer and administer such opportunities; and most considerations of school choice effects don’t really measure, say, the difference in safety and security for students who may be performing about average in their new environment but do not fear for their lives going to and from school each day.

But the simple fact that we’re still asking the question–or using alternative methods to grade progress–suggests at the very least that the fledgling school choice movement has not met its expectations. Those in favor of school choice respond, correctly, that the evidence shows plenty of encouraging signs for properly designed school choice programs, and that efforts by school choice opponents to limit and obstruct the process plays its own part in obscuring the efficacy of school choice. There is also the simple element of fairness and equality of opportunity: why should poor Americans have fewer educational opportunities than others? But the mixed results on school choice also shine a light on one very important–and often overlooked–aspect of education reform: curriculum matters a great deal. Conservatives worried about the state of American education have to be prepared to tackle the question of not only where the students should learn, but what they should learn.

Though it wasn’t intended as such, an intriguing idea comes today from Naomi Schaefer Riley’s review of a posthumously published memoir of Earl Shorris, a different kind of education reformer. Shorris, Riley writes, wanted to tackle the problem of poverty, and figured out a unique approach while interviewing inmates at a prison. Riley recounts the conversation:

He asked one of the women at New York’s Bedford Hills maximum-security prison why she thought the poor were poor. “Because they don’t have the moral life of downtown,” she replied. “What do you mean by the moral life?” Shorris asked. “You got to begin with the children . . . ,” she said. “You’ve got to teach the moral life of downtown to the children. And the way you do that, Earl, is by taking them downtown to plays, museums, concerts, lectures.” He asked whether she meant the humanities. Looking at him as if he were, as he puts it, “the stupidest man on earth,” she replied: “Yes, Earl, the humanities.”

That provided the spark that eventually became the Clemente Course in the Humanities, which Shorris designed and which is available to the poor in many cities in the U.S. as well as a few countries abroad. Riley continues:

The Clemente Course differs from life at universities in other ways—for instance, by taking the Western classics seriously. How many college graduates have read Plato, Aristotle, Thucydides and Mill? It also differs in its sense of what the texts can do. Much of the liberal-arts curriculum in universities today is devoted to learning about oppression of one sort or another, but Shorris argued that the study of the humanities is a fundamentally optimistic endeavor. Not that Clemente texts are routinely cheery or anodyne. Shorris himself taught Dostoevsky, “the brilliant archeologist who dared to make us look deep into our dark sides.” But Shorris did feel that, by reading and discussing classic texts, life was better or richer in some fundamental sense: more valued, more hopeful, more free.

Though Riley specifically mentions universities, there’s no reason this idea couldn’t be integrated into high school curriculum too. In the culmination of his life’s work, a 1,200-page history of political thought, Alan Ryan discusses the fact that political theorists must grapple with the thoughts and ideas of their long-dead predecessors. “There is no way to do this,” Ryan admits, “without running the risk of foisting our own views on the unresisting dead. It is the obvious danger of attempting to have a conversation with great, but absent, thinkers who cannot tell us we are talking nonsense.”

Yet as students who study the classics could attest, it matters less that they cannot tell us we are talking nonsense than that we are attempting the conversation. When students grapple with the great thinkers and writers, they permit themselves to elevate their own intellectual stature in order to “get in the ring” in the first place.

When Shorris says that studying the classics can make a life more hopeful, more free, he knew what he was talking about. One of the last chapters in Shorris’s book, The Art of Freedom, describes a reunion of sorts in Salt Lake City of graduates of the course. They describe it alternately as “life-altering,” a rebirth, a way to tap into hidden strengths and talents. “They read the Allegory of the Cave as if it were the story of their own experience before they came to the course,” he writes. But you get the feeling that although he was pleased, he wasn’t surprised. Unlike real estate, when it comes to education it isn’t only about location, location, location. Education reformers would do well to keep that in mind.

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Minority Voters and the GOP: Rand Paul’s Third Way

When confronted with the Republican Party’s poor standing among minority communities, GOP politicians have usually taken one of two approaches: claim these communities constitute “natural conservative constituencies” or advocate a broad change in policy or ideology to attract minority voters. Neither one of these tactics has been effective, for various reasons–chief among those reasons is that the communities under consideration are usually not “natural conservative constituencies.”

Take Hispanics, for example. It is often noted by GOP politicians that Hispanic immigrants are hard-working, family-oriented strivers who tend to be religious. That may be true, but polls showed that while Mitt Romney was generally trusted on the economy more than Barack Obama, Hispanics overwhelmingly trusted Obama on the economy. Whether or not Hispanics share a cultural or social conservatism with the GOP, then, becomes basically irrelevant. I wrote about one poll here that showed 73 percent of Hispanics preferred Obama to Romney on the economy, and 73 percent planned to vote for Obama. It doesn’t get much clearer than that.

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When confronted with the Republican Party’s poor standing among minority communities, GOP politicians have usually taken one of two approaches: claim these communities constitute “natural conservative constituencies” or advocate a broad change in policy or ideology to attract minority voters. Neither one of these tactics has been effective, for various reasons–chief among those reasons is that the communities under consideration are usually not “natural conservative constituencies.”

Take Hispanics, for example. It is often noted by GOP politicians that Hispanic immigrants are hard-working, family-oriented strivers who tend to be religious. That may be true, but polls showed that while Mitt Romney was generally trusted on the economy more than Barack Obama, Hispanics overwhelmingly trusted Obama on the economy. Whether or not Hispanics share a cultural or social conservatism with the GOP, then, becomes basically irrelevant. I wrote about one poll here that showed 73 percent of Hispanics preferred Obama to Romney on the economy, and 73 percent planned to vote for Obama. It doesn’t get much clearer than that.

Conservatives also tried to convince themselves that since black voters were generally disapproving toward gay marriage, they would gravitate toward the GOP. But when it came to national elections, black voters weren’t basing their choices on gay marriage, and now African-American opposition to gay marriage is dropping anyway.

But there is a third way, in fact, to try to appeal to minority voters, and it was typified in Rand Paul’s speech to the predominantly black Howard University yesterday. This strategy may not work either, but it is certainly worth trying. Paul’s third way had two elements. The first, and obvious, one is to show up in the first place. Conservatives cannot expect minority voters to come to them; if you want someone’s vote, you have to prove it–and earn it.

In the Washington Post’s wrap-up of the 2012 presidential election, the paper noted that Paul Ryan, on the ticket as the vice presidential nominee, apparently “had wanted to talk about poverty, traveling to inner cities and giving speeches that laid out the Republican vision for individual empowerment.” The Romney campaign, according to the Post’s sources, was unconvinced. But Ryan had the right idea. (Rand Paul’s speech at Howard raises the question of why Ryan isn’t giving those speeches now that he’s no longer restrained by the top of a presidential ticket.)

As Romney’s disastrous “47 percent” remarks showed, if you appear utterly uninterested in someone’s vote, you’re probably not going to get it. But the second part of Paul’s approach at Howard, and the identifying element of his third way, has to do with policy. When Republicans address the issue of minority voters, they often come off as condescending. They tend to hold that minority voters simply don’t know that they should obviously be voting Republican, or that if they repeat the same message enough it’ll get through–both of which suggest ignorance on the part of the voter being addressed.

But as Rand Paul found out yesterday, these voters quite often do follow the policy fights in Washington and know exactly where they stand on the issues. Luckily, Paul came prepared. Though the students were skeptical of much of what Paul had to say, he did receive cheers for his advocacy of reforming mandatory minimum sentences for some drug offenders. Mandatory minimums take sentencing discretion out of the hands of judges and often result in wildly disproportionate sentences that have a disparate impact on the black community.

About three weeks ago, Paul and Vermont Democrat Patrick Leahy introduced a bill that would provide a “safety valve” for drug sentencing, allowing the judge in some cases to levy far less jail time when the circumstances call for leniency. Additionally, while Paul doesn’t favor full legalization of marijuana, he is stridently opposed to the way those who use the drug are prosecuted. In a recent appearance on Fox News Sunday, Paul said:

Look, the last two presidents could conceivably have been put in jail for their drug use, and I really think, you know, look what would have happened, it would have ruined their lives. They got lucky, but a lot of poor kids, particularly in the inner city, don’t get lucky. They don’t have good attorneys, and they go to jail for these things and I think it’s a big mistake.

When California proposed legalizing marijuana in 2010, polling showed it had the support of two-thirds of the state’s black voters, and an NAACP official called it “a civil rights issue.” Paul also supports school choice, which tends to attract support from the black community in both red and blue states.

Paul was far from embraced by the students at Howard yesterday. But Republicans have to start by showing up. It’s a low-risk proposition anyway, since it’s unlikely Paul’s third way will fare any worse than its predecessors.

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School Choice Versus Religious Prejudice

Last week I wrote about the victory scored in Indiana by school choice advocates when a far-reaching bill allowing parents of poor and middle class children to send their kids to private and religious schools rather than a failing public system. The Indiana Supreme Court ruled constitutional a measure that rightly allows a percentage of state education funds to follow the kids to whatever school was best for them. The principle here is that allowing a government monopoly on public education is something that prioritizes the needs of unions and bureaucracies rather than then needs of children. Vouchers create more engagement of families in education and provide much-needed competition for a public system that needs it in order to be forced to improve.

However, there was one argument against school choice that I did not address last week. That is the possibility that public funds could be used to finance private or religious schools that teach hate or undermine democracy. Ironically, the emptiness of that point was underscored by a news story out of Tennessee where Governor Bill Haslam is trying to shepherd his own vouchers bill through the legislature. In contrast to other venues throughout the country where liberal ideologues who wish to defend the government education monopoly are the prime obstacles to reform, in the Volunteer State the problem is a faction of conservatives who have no objection to helping parochial schools, so long as the faith upheld in them is their own.

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Last week I wrote about the victory scored in Indiana by school choice advocates when a far-reaching bill allowing parents of poor and middle class children to send their kids to private and religious schools rather than a failing public system. The Indiana Supreme Court ruled constitutional a measure that rightly allows a percentage of state education funds to follow the kids to whatever school was best for them. The principle here is that allowing a government monopoly on public education is something that prioritizes the needs of unions and bureaucracies rather than then needs of children. Vouchers create more engagement of families in education and provide much-needed competition for a public system that needs it in order to be forced to improve.

However, there was one argument against school choice that I did not address last week. That is the possibility that public funds could be used to finance private or religious schools that teach hate or undermine democracy. Ironically, the emptiness of that point was underscored by a news story out of Tennessee where Governor Bill Haslam is trying to shepherd his own vouchers bill through the legislature. In contrast to other venues throughout the country where liberal ideologues who wish to defend the government education monopoly are the prime obstacles to reform, in the Volunteer State the problem is a faction of conservatives who have no objection to helping parochial schools, so long as the faith upheld in them is their own.

A number of Republican members of the Tennessee state senate have expressed opposition to school choice because they fear that it would mean some children would have the ability to choose a Muslim school. According to reports there is only one such school in the state that would qualify for the plan, but Senator Jim Tracy doesn’t want any money to follow students to any institution where the Koran might be taught. Tracy and other colleagues who share this concern don’t seem to have the ability to distinguish between Islamists who preach jihad on the West and those that do conceive of their faith as a religion of peace. Another senator who sponsored a 2009 bill to ban the application of Sharia law in the state is also willing to end any chance for reform because of his anti-Muslim agenda. Their position is that choice is OK so long as it is not extended to a religion they don’t like.

While there are legitimate issues with Islamist governments elsewhere in the world that persecute the followers of other faiths and support terrorism, any attempt to inject that discussion into one about school policy in Tennessee is an absurdity. The Muslim minority there and throughout the nation has no more power to impose Sharia law on non-believers than Jews can impose halachah—Jewish religious laws—on other Americans. While no religion should be allowed to impose its tenets on others, the position that the law can and should allow for reasonable accommodation of faith is one that most conservatives understand and intuitively support. But when Muslims are involved some people lose their perspective and adopt positions such as the ones espoused by Tracy and his friends that can only be described as prejudicial.

I have long maintained that the allegation that American Muslims labor under a wave of persecution as part of a post-9/11 backlash is a myth. If anything, the government and most Americans have bent over backwards to ensure that Muslims are protected against prejudice and negative images of Islam have been few and far between in our popular culture, despite the best efforts of al-Qaeda and Iran to identify that faith with America’s enemies. But accounts of what is being said in the Tennessee legislature are enough to convince me that while Islamophobia is rare, it is not entirely a figment of the media’s imagination.

But even as we condemn a position that seems to be rooted strictly in a bias against a specific faith, it is important to address the issue as it relates to school choice. Bigots in Tennessee aren’t the first ones to raise the specter of school choice being a boon for schools run by extremists. Liberals worry that they can be used to bolster Christian fundamentalists as much as others don’t want them to aid schools that might promote Islamism.

But the question of extremist schools is a red herring that ought not to be allowed to derail choice in Tennessee or anywhere else.

Public schools may not be the only kind of public education, but that doesn’t mean states don’t have the right and the responsibility to ensure that any institution, be it a public charter, private or parochial adhere to basic standards and teach core curriculum items such as civics. Whether a school is private, Catholic, Protestant, Jewish, Muslim or Buddhist should not be an issue, provided that it adhere to general standards including instruction in democratic values along with reading, writing, arithmetic as well faith.

It needs to be remembered that prohibitions against public funding of religion-based schools dates back not to the founders of our republic–most of whom considered faith to be an integral part of education–but to the late 19th century. It was then that so-called “Blaine amendments”—named after James G. Blaine, the 1884 Republican presidential candidate—swept the nation fueled by a wave of anti-Catholic prejudice. Their purpose was to hamstring Catholic parochial schools because Protestant bigots saw them as tools of a papist conspiracy that would allow the pope to take over the United States.

Americans should look back on that madness with regret and shame, but it is no coincidence that an effort to undo a Blaine-style ban on funding non-government schools should be derailed by a different variety of the same hateful virus. Radical separationism of the sort that would prohibit allowing government funds to follow children to religious schools isn’t necessarily identical with prejudice, but is unsurprising to see this cause going back to its biased roots.

The cause of school choice is rooted in good public policy and the needs of children who deserve an escape route from a disastrous public school system that has heretofore only been the privilege of the wealthy. It can be defended against misleading charges that it will benefit extremists. But as was the case in our country’s past, it remains vulnerable to ancient hates that continue to resurface.

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Time to Redefine Public Education

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.

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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.

While there have been other vouchers experiments, the Indiana program is the largest and most generous such program since it is the most broad-based such experiment. As the Indianapolis Star reports:

A family of four that earns less than $42,000 annually can receive up to 90 percent of the state aid for a child’s public school education. Families of four making $42,000 to $62,000 can receive 50 percent of the state aid amount.

The key to understanding this concept is that it is not a gift from the state to private or parochial schools but merely a re-allocation of the funding that would ordinarily follow the student wherever he or she might go in the public system. In Indiana the purpose of the money devoted to education is now regarded as geared to the welfare of each individual child rather than to government institutions and their bureaucracies. Instead of the state deciding where all of the money should go, now poor and middle-class families are empowered to make decisions for their children.

The teachers’ unions and the rest of the state education establishment that oppose school choice tell us that this drains money from public schools and will hurt children. But the well-funded legal and political struggle they have been waging to squelch every attempt to provide choice is defending is their education monopoly, not the best interests of those interred in schools that don’t give kids a chance.

Far from destroying public schools, the availability of private and other options, such as charters, provide the system with the competition that is the only way to incentivize their improvement. Without that, the bureaucracy will continue to process kids more than educate them, as is the case in all too many places around the country where the families with the means to choose other options have fled the public system.

While charters are often highly successful, they remain under the purview of the public schools bureaucracy that has more to gain from their failure than success. That’s why any real education reform program must open up the gates for underprivileged kids to attend private and religious schools that are forced to succeed without the government backing that often means failure is not punished.

Choice opponents also claim there is no proof vouchers can succeed in improving achievement, but this is a self-fulfilling prophecy since almost every previous experiment has been so limited and often cut off by liberal politicians before they had a chance to succeed.

An excellent example of this was seen in Washington D.C. where Congress established a limited school choice program that offered a small number of poor kids a chance to attend private schools that were previously restricted to the capital’s elite. But after Democrats took back control of both the White House and Congress in 2008, the experiment was ended. That meant that in the future the poor urban African-American kids no longer could hope to attend Sidwell Friends, the private school where President Obama sends his two daughters.

The hypocrisy of Obama and other limousine liberals who are prepared to condemn the children of the poor to attend disastrous public schools they would never dream of sending their children to is breathtaking. But it is exactly that attitude that is at the heart of this issue.

The question for Obama and his friends in the teachers’ unions is the same it has been for years. For all of the lip service such liberals pay to the welfare of the poor and the need for education to break the cycle of poverty, they refuse to take the one step that actually offers a path to a better life for these kids. They do so because they regard the sanctity of the public education monopoly to be a higher priority than the needs of ordinary Americans.

The question for them is the same that they are quick to pose to their opponents on other equal access issues. Are they prepared to acknowledge that the children of the poor are made in God’s image the same as their own? Are they really willing to sacrifice another generation of the poor on the altar of the failed god of public schools merely in order to prop up an education bureaucracy and unions that are their political allies?

More and more Americans are starting to realize that if the object of public education is to give children a chance, they must widen their horizons and start letting the flow of taxpayer dollars to the schools follow the kids rather than the bureaucrats and the unions. What happened this week in Indiana could be the moment when the tide began to turn in favor of education rather than liberal ideology.

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GOP Leadership Seeks Its Own Rebranding

As the Republican Party rolls out its rebranding efforts today, the RNC’s “Growth and Opportunity Project” is getting the most press and the most attention. Flying slightly under the radar, however, is a piece of news related to the party’s rebranding efforts. Politico reports that a McLaughlin poll commissioned by the YG Network–an outgrowth of the “Young Guns” of the House GOP–is warning Republicans that the party’s focus on debt and deficits is missing the mark with voters.

I wrote about this subject last week, noting that the right’s focus on balancing the budget was crowding out the rest of its economic message and that it would ultimately prove a distraction from a more effective–and marketable–policy approach. Politico is reporting that the House GOP is getting similar feedback from its survey:

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As the Republican Party rolls out its rebranding efforts today, the RNC’s “Growth and Opportunity Project” is getting the most press and the most attention. Flying slightly under the radar, however, is a piece of news related to the party’s rebranding efforts. Politico reports that a McLaughlin poll commissioned by the YG Network–an outgrowth of the “Young Guns” of the House GOP–is warning Republicans that the party’s focus on debt and deficits is missing the mark with voters.

I wrote about this subject last week, noting that the right’s focus on balancing the budget was crowding out the rest of its economic message and that it would ultimately prove a distraction from a more effective–and marketable–policy approach. Politico is reporting that the House GOP is getting similar feedback from its survey:

The YG Network polling, conducted by the GOP firm McLaughlin & Associates, found that 38 percent of Americans name the “economy and jobs” as the issue of greatest importance to them. Twenty percent named “deficit and debt” as their top concern, and 16 percent pointed to health care….

The polling questions related to entitlements are just as bracing. Voters are willing to consider some changes to the Medicare system – raising the eligibility age to 67 and means-testing benefits – but less than half are enthusiastic about changing the system immediately in order to balance the budget over a decade.

Asked to choose one government program they would be willing to cut, only 14 percent of respondents named Social Security or Medicare. Just over three quarters – 76 percent – picked military spending or other, unspecified “welfare programs.”

It remains the case that cutting debt is a worthy goal and finds support among the voters. But it is simply not enough of an agenda for them. Americans have a full range of concerns tied to the current economic challenges they face, and it’s not at all clear Republicans have really been listening. This doesn’t mean conservatives in Congress have to pander by offering free goodies or more government programs. But they have to be able to offer a range of solutions.

More important than the results of the survey, however, is where it came from. House Majority Leader Eric Cantor is the highest ranking “young gun” and generally seen as a conservative force in the House, pulling Speaker John Boehner to the right on legislation. But what often gets missed is that Cantor has been trying to rebrand himself as being closer to the center than he is currently thought to be:

John Murray, who heads the YG Network, confirmed that the poll was “specifically designed to challenge the assumption that spending cuts as a central theme is sufficient.”

It’s not that spending restraint is a bad issue for conservatives, according to Murray; it’s just not enough, on its own, to drive middle-class support for a center-right policy vision.

“It doesn’t feel aspirational and it doesn’t feel like a message of the future,” said Murray, who suggested conservatives need an agenda “broad enough so [Americans] feel like it impacts them in a real way.” …

“You can see where you can have a very solid center-right platform,” he said.

The “young guns” include not just Cantor but Paul Ryan and Kevin McCarthy as well. And it’s clear they believe the efforts to label conservatives as unconcerned about the poor and middle class are working. They seem almost to be conceding the point by talking about switching to a “center-right” agenda. As Mitt Romney’s vice presidential nominee last year, Ryan was visibly troubled by this on the campaign trail. He gave speeches about strengthening civil society and the need for a social safety net that encompasses more than federal welfare or entitlement programs.

What is meaningful about the McLaughlin poll, then, is that Cantor’s office wanted a survey that would justify his own desire to move away from an all-debt-all-the-time message, fully aware that he was losing the attention of the American people. And if the poll was structured to tell Cantor basically what he wanted to hear, then the results are perhaps even more significant, because a look at the results shows that what Cantor wanted to hear was more about education, energy policy, and even comprehensive immigration reform.

Quite apart from the self-conscious use of the term “center-right,” these are also issues the GOP should want to address. The GOP would almost certainly gain from taking the immigration issue off the table (though immigration reform is the right thing to do anyway). And the lack of discussion on the right about education is mindboggling. Conservatives are winning the argument on school choice and opportunity, yet find themselves mostly talking about teacher contracts. And high-profile Democratic politicians have been caught suppressing scientific studies showing the safety of economy-boosting and job-creating domestic energy production at a time of high unemployment, putting the issue of energy on a silver platter for conservatives.

The RNC reboot is getting all the attention today, but if this story is to be believed, the shift in the House GOP leadership may be of greater consequence.

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Mugged By Reality on School Choice

For anyone who followed Michelle Rhee’s career since her time in Washington D.C., this latest opinion piece called “My Break With the Democrats” is no surprise. Rhee, the former schools chancellor for Washington was a breath of fresh air for a school system that has consistently produced underperforming students. Rhee’s tactics, including her support for the DC Opportunity Scholarship Program, a voucher system promoting school choice in the capital, led to a rebellion from teachers and their unions in the city. The D.C. mayoral race in 2010 became a referendum on Democratic Mayor Adrian Fenty’s education policies, namely having Rhee at their helm, and teacher’s unions poured $1 million into the campaign to unseat Fenty in order to remove Rhee.

Unfortunately for D.C.’s students, Vincent Gray’s campaign for mayor was successful, in large part thanks to financial support from teacher’s unions. Immediately following Gray’s election Rhee resigned, knowing her mandate for reform had expired. The ramifications of the election have been disastrous both for the city and for education in the District. A recently released report indicates that only four in 10 D.C. 3rd graders are proficient readers and even fewer are in math. Three years after Rhee’s departure the teacher’s unions have gotten their way, and it’s easy to see who the winners and losers were in their battle for control for control of education policy in the city.

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For anyone who followed Michelle Rhee’s career since her time in Washington D.C., this latest opinion piece called “My Break With the Democrats” is no surprise. Rhee, the former schools chancellor for Washington was a breath of fresh air for a school system that has consistently produced underperforming students. Rhee’s tactics, including her support for the DC Opportunity Scholarship Program, a voucher system promoting school choice in the capital, led to a rebellion from teachers and their unions in the city. The D.C. mayoral race in 2010 became a referendum on Democratic Mayor Adrian Fenty’s education policies, namely having Rhee at their helm, and teacher’s unions poured $1 million into the campaign to unseat Fenty in order to remove Rhee.

Unfortunately for D.C.’s students, Vincent Gray’s campaign for mayor was successful, in large part thanks to financial support from teacher’s unions. Immediately following Gray’s election Rhee resigned, knowing her mandate for reform had expired. The ramifications of the election have been disastrous both for the city and for education in the District. A recently released report indicates that only four in 10 D.C. 3rd graders are proficient readers and even fewer are in math. Three years after Rhee’s departure the teacher’s unions have gotten their way, and it’s easy to see who the winners and losers were in their battle for control for control of education policy in the city.

In her piece in the Daily Beast, Rhee explained why she found herself breaking with her Democratic counterparts on education, in particular on school choice issues. The article, adapted from her new book Radical, closed with this commonsense argument that school choice advocates should be utilizing more often:

Think about it this way. Say your elderly mother had to be hospitalized for life-threatening cancer. The best doctor in the region is at Sacred Heart, a Catholic, private hospital. Could you ever imagine saying this? “Well, I don’t think our taxpayer dollars should subsidize this private institution that has religious roots, so we’re going to take her to County General, where she’ll get inferior care. ’Cause that’s just the right thing to do!”

No. You’d want to make sure that your tax dollars got your mom the best care. Period. Our approach should be no different for our children. Their lives are at stake when we’re talking about the quality of education they are receiving. The quality of care standard should certainly be no lower.

In comparison to the outcomes for public school students in D.C where only 70 percent of students graduate, graduates who participated in the D.C. voucher program, which Rhee ultimately lost her job defending, graduate at a rate of 94 percent per year. While it may be difficult for Rhee to find employment as a chancellor in another city because of teacher’s unions’ animosity toward her policies, her outspoken conversion to school choice advocacy adds an important voice to the conversation.

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The Logic of Union Reform in Blue States

When the economy is stuck at around 8 percent unemployment for years heading into a presidential election, and the incumbent is desperately avoiding questions about a foreign policy fiasco, most other issues are bound to fade from priority. And so the issue of education in America has duly taken a back seat this year. But that doesn’t mean the issue has been stagnant in the minds of Americans.

In fact, over the last couple of years we have seen a striking change take place in public opinion. The support for school choice and public union reform in places like Wisconsin and New Jersey have shown that even while school choice and voucher programs have yet to prove themselves a solution to the ailing American education system, the support for school reform even in blue states and among pro-union parts of the country signify a willingness to break with tradition on the part of frustrated parents. On that note, while education hasn’t been much a part of the election this year, Mitt Romney did include it in his closing argument, delivered in Wisconsin today:

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When the economy is stuck at around 8 percent unemployment for years heading into a presidential election, and the incumbent is desperately avoiding questions about a foreign policy fiasco, most other issues are bound to fade from priority. And so the issue of education in America has duly taken a back seat this year. But that doesn’t mean the issue has been stagnant in the minds of Americans.

In fact, over the last couple of years we have seen a striking change take place in public opinion. The support for school choice and public union reform in places like Wisconsin and New Jersey have shown that even while school choice and voucher programs have yet to prove themselves a solution to the ailing American education system, the support for school reform even in blue states and among pro-union parts of the country signify a willingness to break with tradition on the part of frustrated parents. On that note, while education hasn’t been much a part of the election this year, Mitt Romney did include it in his closing argument, delivered in Wisconsin today:

You know that if the President is re-elected, he will say every good thing he can about education, but in the final analysis, he will do what his largest campaign supporters–the public-sector unions–insist upon. And your kids will have the same schools with the same results.

When I am president, I will be a voice of the children and their parents. There is no union for the PTA. I will give parents the information they need to know if their school is failing, and the choice they need to pick the school where their child can succeed.

The willingness of normally pro-union states and voters to support union restrictions has taken some by surprise. But it shouldn’t. The truth is, it’s only logical that in states like New Jersey, where union power has been unchallenged for decades while property owners foot the bill for exorbitant union benefits, desire for true reform would begin to pick up grassroots momentum.

In New Jersey, where I covered education earlier in my career, it was common for schools to cut tutoring programs and sports teams, and otherwise deprive students of various educational opportunities because the teacher and administrator contracts were set in stone. Thanks to collective bargaining between pro-union liberal governors and the unions, school budgets were set in such a way that the only thing protected from budget cuts were union-brokered salaries and benefits.

It makes sense, then, that in such an atmosphere—where it’s not an exaggeration to say that the unions were slowly killing the state’s education system—parents finally said: Enough.

This creates one of the country’s most promising opportunities for bipartisanship: Republican governors not beholden to the unions team up with more liberal voters to reform a system desperately in need of it. And even without proof that school choice will fix education, parents also seem to be out of patience with their exclusion from their child’s educational choices. Without school choice, poor kids are tethered to poor school systems, creating what reform advocates call the civil rights challenge of this generation.

It is also for this reason that Romney hasn’t focused too much on education. It is big government, top-down programs that have failed students time and again. It is the governors and other local leaders who are better able to accurately assess their students’ needs and work with the public to bring about change. Beyond federal support for programs like the D.C. Opportunity Scholarship Program—which President Obama sought to end, depriving many D.C.-area minority students of an educational and socioeconomic lifeline—a conservative approach to education reform takes place far from the know-it-all reaches of the federal bureaucracy.

Forcing children to make sacrifices to support six-figure salaries of overpaid—and in some cases, unnecessary—administrators is a shameful approach to public policy. And the fact that parents, and even many teachers, recognize this is why conservative politicians feel confident enough to make this argument in blue states.

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Romney’s Education Course Correction

Last month, Mitt Romney challenged both President Obama and the education establishment with a speech to the U.S. Chamber of Commerce that called for a broad policy overhaul. If adopted, Romney’s idea could overturn a quarter-century of efforts to concentrate more power and responsibility for education in the federal government. It also made clear the Republican presidential candidate favors school choice schemes in which federal dollars would follow students no matter what school they choose to attend even if it were not the local public school.

Not surprisingly, the education establishment isn’t happy about the prospect of such reforms and are started to push back as a New York Times article on the subject made clear today. But while the Times and other critics of his speech may have thought Romney would be embarrassed for being called out as opposing the educational approach embraced by President George W. Bush, they are wrong. Bush’s “No Child Left Behind” may have been a noble attempt to improve the quality of schools, but it is deeply unpopular and had the unfortunate effect of being a vehicle for more federal power at the expense of local control. Moreover, the usual chorus of criticism for Romney’s embrace of voucher-like school choice ideas underestimates the hunger for genuine educational reform that exists in the country. In education, Romney has found an issue that will help him breach the divide between the GOP and many constituencies that are desperately in need of the sort of national course correction he is prescribing.

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Last month, Mitt Romney challenged both President Obama and the education establishment with a speech to the U.S. Chamber of Commerce that called for a broad policy overhaul. If adopted, Romney’s idea could overturn a quarter-century of efforts to concentrate more power and responsibility for education in the federal government. It also made clear the Republican presidential candidate favors school choice schemes in which federal dollars would follow students no matter what school they choose to attend even if it were not the local public school.

Not surprisingly, the education establishment isn’t happy about the prospect of such reforms and are started to push back as a New York Times article on the subject made clear today. But while the Times and other critics of his speech may have thought Romney would be embarrassed for being called out as opposing the educational approach embraced by President George W. Bush, they are wrong. Bush’s “No Child Left Behind” may have been a noble attempt to improve the quality of schools, but it is deeply unpopular and had the unfortunate effect of being a vehicle for more federal power at the expense of local control. Moreover, the usual chorus of criticism for Romney’s embrace of voucher-like school choice ideas underestimates the hunger for genuine educational reform that exists in the country. In education, Romney has found an issue that will help him breach the divide between the GOP and many constituencies that are desperately in need of the sort of national course correction he is prescribing.

The Times puts down Romney’s education ideas as a desperate attempt to create some distance between himself and President Obama that is complicated by the president’s support for some reform proposals like charter schools. His position is also described as somehow a derivative of Tea Party ideology — a pejorative in Timespeak — because it returns the GOP to a position of distrust for federal education power after Bush’s “No Child Left Behind” initiative.

But one needn’t be a Tea Party stalwart to understand how widely disliked the federal mandates created by Bush’s policies were in local school districts. Though the intent was to force improvement — a laudable goal — the imposition of an education philosophy that seemed at times solely focused on standardized tests is unpopular with both educators and parents. Though accountability is key to improving an often failing public system, Bush’s experiment seems to have proved that it cannot be accomplished by a top-down dictat coming from Washington.

Just as important, Romney’s willingness to cross a teachers union red line that, as the Times points out, Obama will not cross is no superficial difference. By seizing upon school choice as not just an education priority but also a civil rights issue, Romney is also putting Obama on the defensive.

The Times gives another airing to the tired chorus of choice critics, voiced by, among others, Bush Education Secretary Margaret Spellings. Spellings who quit as a Romney adviser after he made it clear he would support voucher plans, says the idea of creating accountability via the competition that would be created by choice is “untried and untested.” But that’s what school choice opponents have been saying for a generation as they fought every attempt to try voucher plans or to curtail or end voucher experiments.

To say that advocacy of choice is an attempt to impose right-wing ideology on the education system is looking at the issue through the wrong end of the telescope. To the contrary, it is the liberal ideological opposition to empowering parents to choose their children’s schools that is the barrier to overcome here.

Moreover, choice would give minority parents whose kids are often stuck in failed inner city schools the opportunity to give them the same opportunities President Obama’s children have. It should be remembered that despite his support for public schools, Sasha and Malia Obama go to the elite Sidwell Friends School, not a local D.C. institution. Nor should it be forgotten that President Obama bears the responsibility for killing a Washington school choice scheme (initiated under President Bush) that enabled poor kids to rub shoulders with the presidential children at Sidwell.

Far from going out on a limb with the Tea Party, Romney’s course correction from Bush’s diversion from traditional Republican ideas is both good politics and good policy.

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Obama’s Weak on the Real Civil Rights Issue

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.

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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.

By treating federal education funds as the equivalent of vouchers that would be transferred to any school a child attends — be it public, charter or private — Romney is opening the door to a national re-examination of school choice measures that could revolutionize the educational system. Many states currently allow education funds to follow students, especially on items that are required by all schools, such as standard text books or busing. But the rigid opposition of both the unions and liberal ideologues has served as an impassable obstacle to changing the system so as to recognize the principle that all schools that serve the children of the nation, including those that are private or religious, are in effect public schools. That would mean the local as well as federal education funding should be distributed to all accredited schools rather than just those with the public label.

Doing so would advance the cause of education. It would create the competitive pressure for excellence that has often been lacking in the public system.

This is a critical issue for all Americans but even more so for minorities and the poor. While the wealthy have the ability to choose the best schools for their kids, those without the same resources are stuck in failed public schools where children don’t have much of a chance. The president played a prominent role in ending a successful experiment in school choice in the District of Columbia that allowed poor children to attend the elite Sidwell Friends School (where his own two daughters go) rather than a Washington public school. The glaring hypocrisy of his position that effectively closes out a quality option for the people he claims to represent is one that ought not to be forgotten.

Though the movement of federal education funds is more of a symbolic move than anything else, Romney has still thrown down the gauntlet to Obama on an issue where it is the Republican and not the president who is defending the interests of minorities and the poor. If this is to be an election fought on the question of equality, Romney has found a good place to stand his ground.

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