Choices

In a column that has tongues wagging even at this early hour, a clearly excited George Will sees a big wave of school choice coming.

I do think, however, that the Bush Administration really fumbled their handling of this issue as part of their No Child Left Behind reauthorization proposals (pdf). First, the president failed to set the stage much at all during his State of the Union. Then, as a result, the administration’s proposals came out of right field and sparked a debate on vouchers, moved the parties further apart, and distracted from what I think is the core — and legitimate — issue they were trying to raise: What do we do for kids in persistently failing schools and those schools? I think they were trying to force that conversation but botched it.

So I’m not at all sold on the Administration’s prime ideas here. As a matter of scale and supply I don’t think vouchers work. And, the governing principal for school accountability should be, I think, intervention in inverse proportion to success. What persistently low-performing schools need is not more flexibility but rather less. In other words, they’re low-performing not because of rules and regulations but because they don’t know what to do or how to do it or have the wrong people for the mission. So sure, teacher contracts get in the way of that some, but simply changing them is only part of the equation.

But, all that said, while Administration is asking the right question, by stumbling into a fight over vouchers with flames being fanned by the usual suspects, that question has so far been obscured. And that’s too bad, because forcing everyone to ante up with serious and time-bound answers would be a useful exercise.

Update: Uber voucher advocate Clint Bolick responds to this post here, more in sadness than anger. But his response makes me think the above may not have been clear. I don’t care that vouchers are divisive, or that the Administration proposed them (though I have problems with the substance), my point here is more a political one: Rather than clearly putting the question of what to do in cases of persistent school failure on the table and sparking a debate, the Bushies just kinda wandered into this. Consequently, we’re back to a decontextualized debate about vouchers, which is exactly what the establishment wants, good for business on both sides of that debate, but will likely lead nowhere near reform as part of No Child Left Behind.

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