Last year, the Republican National Committee’s “autopsy” was light on policy prescriptions, but one measure was mentioned repeatedly: “school choice.”
In reality, Americans can already choose to send their kids to private schools if they want to, but that’s not what Republicans are referring to. Rather, “school choice” is a poll-tested euphemism for private school vouchers. It’s an idea that dates back to the days of Brown v. Board of Education – after the ruling, vouchers were touted as a way to help white kids flee segregated schools – but in recent years, Republicans have touted vouchers as a way to privatize education, undermine teachers’ unions, and give the appearance of compassion towards low-income families.
But now that some GOP leaders are talking up their approach to combatting poverty, using public funds to pay private-school tuition is generating a new round of attention. This was especially true last week when many prominent Republicans presented a war on the war on poverty.
House Majority Leader Eric Cantor vowed Wednesday to protect and promote school choice programs and attacked Democratic politicians, including New York Mayor Bill de Blasio, for seeking to block the growth of charter schools and voucher programs. […]“Right now, school choice is under attack,” Cantor said. “It is up to us in this room and our allies across the nation to work for and fight for the families and students who will suffer the consequences if school choice is taken away.”
There are quite a few problems with this. For one thing, “school choice” is a misleading label for vouchers. For another, there’s very little evidence to suggest vouchers are helping children in a measurable way. And finally, if vouchers are “under attack,” it’s probably because they’re not popular and struggle to withstand court scrutiny
But of particular interest was Cantor’s criticism of New York Mayor Bill de Blasio (D), who intends to charge wealthiest charter schools, many of which receive public education funds on top of private donations.
In practice, of course, Congress has little leverage over New York City education policy. Yet Cantor vowed to try to block any rollback in support for charter schools. “Our committees in the House will remain vigilant in their efforts to ensure no one from the government stands in the school house door between any child and a good education,” he said. De Blasio’s policies, he said, “could devastate the growth of education opportunity” and take choice away from countless families in New York City.
Again, as a substantive matter, there’s nothing to suggest charging wealthy charter schools rent would “devastate” anyone or anything. But even putting that aside, since when does the far-right House Majority Leader believe it’s up to Congress to help shape school policy in a city far from Washington, D.C.?
Indeed, the irony was quite rich – while Republicans spent much of the week arguing that more public resources should be directed to state governments for greater local control, Cantor argued the opposite when it came to schools in New York City.
As for substantive arguments, Cantor struggled to defend his own positions.
Cantor called the Washington voucher program an unquestioned success, though he cited academic performance statistics that actually came from the city’s charter schools, not its voucher schools. A federal analysis of the Washington voucher program found the students did not perform any better in math than their peers in public schools. The students did not post higher reading scores than their peers for the first two years of the study but did show statistically significant gains in the third and final year of analysis.A federal audit of the Washington voucher program this fall found it was riddled with problems. Chief among them: a glaring lack of controls to ensure that the private schools receiving the vouchers were physically safe or academically sound, the Government Accountability Office found.