Initial Steps For Reform in Virginia and New Jersey

Aggressive education reform won’t occur without strong governors who are committed to real change.  Accordingly, this week’s news from Virginia and New Jersey raises the prospect of interesting developments in both states.

Bret Schundler is New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie’s choice to be that state’s Education Commissioner.  Meanwhile, Gerard Robinson was nominated for a similar position in Virginia by that state’s new governor, Bob McConnell.

While the backgrounds of Schundler and Robinson vary substantially, they share a strong belief in the importance of expanding educational options for parents.  In other words, school choice.  Even more specifically, vouchers.  Their support of school choice reflects a broader set of beliefs rooted in the need for actual change.

The test now is whether they and the governors who appointed them can run the legislative gauntlet in each state to produce something more than a watered-down set of “pilot” programs that don’t really move the bar.  Until now, opponents of meaningful reform largely have been successful in containing voucher and meaningful charter programs to limited geographical areas.  Teacher unions and their legislative allies also have seen to it that these programs are financed at a fraction of the per-pupil spending received by traditional public schools.  Further, as occurred last year in Wisconsin, when opponents of school reform control the executive and legislative branches, initiatives such as Milwaukee’s voucher program encounter the double-whammy of less funding and a public school regulatory model.

Finally, of course, there is the experience at the federal level, where a supposedly reform oriented President and Education Secretary raised no protest as Congress killed the D.C. Opportunity Scholarship Program

Schundler and Robinson both will have their eyes wide open as they tackle these new assignments.  They’ve heard all the arguments and know the kind of hardball politics that will be played by teachers unions.  What will matter a great deal is how much political capital their bosses are willing to spend to start down the road to real reform.  Governors have considerable power.  It is not a limitless resource.  They have to decide how and when to use it.

Back to Wisconsin, for a moment.  That state’s legislative and gubernatorial elections this year hold great significance for Milwaukee’s school choice program and for the future of meaningful reform in the Badger State.  There are candidates who share the Christie and McConnell commitment to reform based on markets, choice, and real accountability.  There are others who will be content to preside over the steady and inevitable decline of the Milwaukee program that is now underway.

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