(Guest post by Greg Forster)
Look, I know Jeb did one important thing for school choice over twenty years ago, but at some point when you turn in stuff this dumb, it no longer cuts it to say, “hey, I did you a favor in 1999.”
Jeb is the nominal author of an article on NRO about how states should use funds from a new $3 billion federal education bailout. It’s adapted from a big policy report produced by his organization, which he links to.
Let’s leave aside for a moment that the article calls on states to use this cash to push really big, “transformational” changes, whereas $3 billion cut fifty ways doesn’t actually add up to much as a share of the public school budget (over $700 billion a year nationally). We spent $6 billion on Reading First and got nothing to show for it, and Jeb is now pushing early reading intervention and radical new use of digital learning and a big new “workforce preparedness” somethingorother and payouts to private schools for only $3 billion. Someone said something fifteen years ago about the uselessness of the “buckets into the sea” approach to education reform, but people who have the wrong goals just can’t see past the dollar signs in their eyes.
Where was I? Oh yeah, let’s leave all that aside.
In this article, Jeb once again drops school choice. Last time, at the height of his all-in, head-first dive into Common Core (Hey, remember Common Core? Good times!) Jeb dropped choice from his list of four must-have reforms. But he at least mentioned choice in the article, in a way that sort of suggested it might be a good idea, so long as it bent the knee to Common Core.
This time, Jeb drops choice from the list even when his own organization was trying to put it back on. And he doesn’t even mention it in the article.
The policy report, in one of its four recommended items, specifically recommends protecting, expanding and creating school choice programs. But somehow, between the report and Jeb’s article, this item on support for choice magically transmogrified into “stabilizing private schools.”
A government subsidy for private schools is not school choice, any more than a government subsidy for grocery stores would expand people’s food choices. On the contrary, it would narrow them. Just look at how government subsidies for higher education and medical care have fantastically empowered people with more and more access to more and more viable choices!
And what is Jeb’s argument that government should subsidize private K-12 schools in the same way it has so successfully subsidized universities?
Finally, governors could help to stabilize private schools, which are responsible for roughly 10 percent of America’s K–12 students. Private schools, especially faith-based schools, often operate on shoestring budgets, yet in many cases their students are more likely to graduate from high school and go to college. With the impacts of COVID-19, many of these schools are at a breaking point. Families may have less money to pay tuition, and financial aid will be stretched thin. It’s worth a reminder that these schools are part of our education system. They employ teachers, buy textbooks, and educate students who would otherwise fill desks in public schools. They provide alternatives to parents whose needs aren’t being met by the public schools. Helping cash-strapped parents who were paying out of their own pockets to send their child to a great school seems like a simple way to invest in education — and it would keep a vital and successful part of our education system going well into the future.
Why, they’re part of the status quo! How could we possibly not subsidize them?
He even specifically says that his goal is to support families who were already paying for private school – “parents who were paying out of their own pockets” – as opposed to creating new choices for parents who need them!
The point is not parent empowerment that would incentivize better education. The point is to subsidize the status quo forever.
The real head-scratcher here is that school choice programs are a superior way to preserve private education, even if that’s really all you care about. That shouldn’t be what you care about; you should care about better education, which comes from real accountability, which comes from giving power to parents – and not from any other approach. But if what you care about really is just floating the status quo in private schools, why not argue for school choice programs? Why advocate direct subsidies to private schools that will only kill the one thing that private schools really have going for them to make them attractive and keep them vibrant – the fact that they answer to parents?
I can think of one possible reason.
PS Figuring out why “subsidize private schools to serve students already enrolled there!” would be a huge political loser, where “empower parents with new choices!” has been the only – the only – long-term political winner in the history of the education reform movement is left as a Political Science for Ed Reform Dummies exercise for the reader.