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Education Notebook on Education

December 4, 2008

December 4, 2008 | Education Notebook on Education

The Right's School-Reform Agenda

The Right's School-Reform Agenda
It's more than vouchers -- and you shouldn't underestimate vouchers.

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By Dan Lips

Sorry, Jonah: Your latest column on education merits a failing grade.

In "True School Scandal," Goldberg laments the Right's current approach to the school-reform debate. He criticizes those who label President-Elect Obama a hypocrite for choosing a private school for his children while at the same time opposing vouchers. Goldberg recommends using this energy to support reformers like D.C. school chancellor Michelle Rhee, who is trying to shake up the District's beleaguered public-school system.

"Because the [Republican] party supports school-choice vouchers, it's simply out of the debate," Goldberg writes. "School choice has much to recommend it. But it's no silver bullet, and vouchers will never gain full acceptance in rich suburbs." He further argues that supporting school choice has made Republicans "largely irrelevant" in the education-reform debates that matter, like Chancellor Rhee's effort.

Goldberg's argument fails in two ways. First, principled support for aggressive reforms like vouchers has cleared a space for the types of reform policies that leaders like Rhee are advocating. And, second, when it comes to systemic reform, conservatives have a broad agenda of policies that strengthen public education -- and the results to prove it.

Education reformers from across the political spectrum should give thanks to those who have spent decades promoting school choice. These efforts have yielded only modest (but increasing) enactment of voucher programs. But they have created political breathing room for less aggressive reforms -- such as public school choice and teacher merit pay.

Any observer of the teachers unions (which Goldberg properly calls "the worst mainstream institution in our country today") knows that these special-interest groups are calculating -- that is, they fight hardest against the most threatening reforms. In practice, this has meant that dollars and lobbying hours spent fighting school vouchers have not been spent opposing less threatening policies, like charter schools.

Absent pressure from vouchers, it's easy to imagine the National Education Association flexing its political might to block charter schools. It's just as easy to imagine liberal politicians, who have supported charters, bending under the political pressure, just as they do by opposing vouchers today.

In Washington, D.C., a charter school law that attracted bipartisan support (including Bill Clinton's) is now helping 20,000 students transfer out of the District's broken public schools. More than a decade later, this exodus has created enough pressure on the public school system to make Chancellor Rhee's reform efforts even thinkable.

Of course, voucher supporters don't need to justify their efforts just as a tactical maneuver in the larger education reform chess game. It's also the right thing to do. Just ask any of the tens of thousands of children who have better lives today thanks to school-choice programs in Arizona, Milwaukee, Washington, D.C., and other communities.

Facing the imminent threat of repeal in the next Congress, supporters of the D.C. Opportunity Scholarship program have no choice but to play any card they have (including the hypocrisy card against the president-elect) in hopes of protecting the scholarships of the 1,900 children who participate in the program. And the simple fact is that there is an element of hypocrisy when officials tell parents that choice programs aren't needed while pulling their own children from the struggling public schools.

Of course, as Goldberg argues, school choice shouldn't be the Right's only solution for improving education. Fortunately, it isn't. And the pundits who are pushing for the Republican Party to develop new ideas should appreciate the scope and success of conservative reforms in education.

Consider the experience of Florida. The Sunshine State outpaces the rest of the nation in offering parents public and private school-choice options. But conservative education reformers there -- led by former governor Jeb Bush -- have implemented a series of effective reforms that have improved the state's entire public-school system.

Beltway pundits might be familiar with some of Florida's reforms -- like testing students, grading schools based on students' academic achievement, and measuring individual students' progress through growth-model testing. But the state has gone even further.

For example, Florida ended social promotion for elementary students -- requiring third-grade students to master reading before passing on to higher grades. (It was so successful, New York mayor Mike Bloomberg decided to implement a similar policy in Gotham's public schools.)

Florida also implemented instructional reforms -- focusing more on mastering reading instruction and providing remediation to struggling students.

Lawmakers in Tallahassee also established new policies -- like alternative teacher certification and merit pay -- to attract talented teachers and to reward those who succeed. A program to provide bonuses to teachers whose students pass AP exams has led to a tripling of the number of Hispanic and African American students passing these tests.

After a decade of reform, Florida students have made dramatic gains on the National Assessment of Educational Progress. And the greatest progress has been made by Hispanic and African American children. In fact, Hispanic fourth graders in Florida now have higher NAEP reading scores than the statewide average of all students in 13 states. (Matthew Ladner and I presented the evidence in a Goldwater Institute report.)

Florida's experience shows that conservative education reforms aren't irrelevant. In fact, the Right's broad reform recipe (including a healthy serving of school choice) can deliver real progress.

Dan Lips is a Senior Policy Analyst at the Heritage Foundation.

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