Left-of-Center Reformers: Join the Voucher Movement Today

Andy Rotherham deserves respect as one of the most thoughtful proponents of education reform, as well as an impressive institution-builder. He and I probably agree on 90 percent of the issues, though we have sparred at times over the federal role, the balance between “excellence and equity,” and sundry other topics.

My greatest frustration, though, has been his unwillingness to offer full-throated support for school vouchers.

Maybe he’s finally ready. In a blog post yesterday, he predicted that if current reform efforts stall, the future will bring a “low-accountability environment coupled with much more choice” and pointed to the Indiana voucher program (recently upheld by that state’s Supreme Court and hailed by Michael Gerson in the Washington Post) as a sign of things to come.

What Andy may not fully appreciate is that Indiana’s voucher program has accountability in spades. As David Stuit and Sy Doan explain in their recent report for Fordham, School Choice Regulations: Red Tape or Red Herring? , the Hoosier State has an “annual performance-accountability rating system” for participating private schools that is based on the results of state assessments—the same tests that public school pupils take. Indeed, the fact that private schools will soon be held accountable under Common Core standards and assessments has become a major issue in the Hoosier State—because it gives palpitations to the right, not the left! (Other recently enacted private-school-choice programs, including those in Louisiana and Alabama, also include significant testing and accountability requirements.)

So if the lack of accountability is Andy’s (and other reformers’) beef with voucher programs, that concern has been alleviated, at least in several states.

To be sure, I can spot at least two other plausible reasons to oppose vouchers. One is that the schools aren’t required (outside of Milwaukee) to be publicly “accessible.” (Andy, many years ago, wrote a piece saying that “accountability and accessibility” should be demanded of any voucher program.) In other words, private schools can still practice selective admissions. That’s a deal-breaker for many on the left. (And impinging on admissions policies is a deal-breaker for many private schools, the Stuit study found.) But we already have selective-admissions magnet schools (of the sort profiled recently by Checker Finn and Jessica Hockett in Exam Schools) and I don’t remember many reformers calling for their abolition.

The other argument against vouchers is on church/state grounds—a concern that the current Supreme Court doesn’t share, and one that I’ve always found utterly irrational. (Why can public funds help a poor kid attend Notre Dame University but not Notre Dame High School?)

So reformers on the left: Unite! (With those of us on the right who already support the entire range of parental choice.)

-Mike Petrilli

This blog entry first appeared on the Fordham Insitute’s Choice Words blog.

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