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How the GOP’s New Education Policy Embraces the Market and Abandons Objective Standards

We all got a good laugh at the recent befuddlement (reported at TNR by Amy Sullivan) of a conservative Republican legislator from Louisiana who withdrew her support from Gov. Bobby Jindal’s school voucher program when she realized that its open door to public support for religious schools was not limited to those catering to Christians.

But the underlying principle of Jindal’s initiative—and arguably of Mitt Romney’s little-discussed proposal to convert the bulk of federal K-12 education dollars into vouchers—is no laughing matter. No-strings vouchers based on the idea that “the market” or the wishes of parents are an adequate or even ideal form of “educational accountability” could reflect a sharp U-turn in the standards-and-accountability trend in U.S. education that Republicans and conservatives until recently championed. Indeed, Jindal’s (and Romney’s?) agnosticism about the quality of schools receiving public funds represents an abandonment of the very idea of “public education” other than as a mechanism for subsidizing private choices.

What’s drawing attention in Louisiana is the realization that a lot of the schools benefitting from vouchers were poorly staffed and equipped, and offered not only sectarian instruction but questionable handling of educational basics. The state Department of Education, which was required by the enabling legislation to set up an “accountability system” for participating schools, is only now scrambling to “vet” them, primarily, it seems, as a response to bad publicity about a few obvious bad apples (some of which appear to have sprung into existence in response to the availability of vouchers).

But in the bureaucrats’ defense, they may have been faithfully executing Jindal’s stated conviction that “parents are the best accountability system we have.” If the idea is that a marketplace of parents empowered by vouchers can replace tests, standards, community expectations, and every other judge of educational excellence, then what business is it of state administrators to decide the Thief-in-the-Night Academy of the Apocalypse is unqualified to compete?

It should require no more than a few minutes thought to formulate some objections: Might parents have motives beyond a desire for the best possible education for their kids when they “vote with their [or rather, the taxpayers’] dollars” for a particular school, most obviously religious motives? And don't other citizens, besides the parents of a particular child, have a major stake in decisions about schooling?

But aside from these considerations, the most striking thing about the parental rights revolution represented by no-strings vouchers is the abandonment of any effort to identify objective measurements of educational success. And this is particularly shocking coming at a moment when the states are supposedly in the process of implementing a great leap forward in objective standards via the Common Core Standards initiative that 48 states signed onto in 2009.

Why is this happening, in Lousiana or anywhere? Some of the blame must be assumed by hard-core defenders of traditional public schools, who often lump together charter public schools with private-school vouchers as minor variations on a single heretical theme. While the charter public school movement has had its own failings, it fundamentally aims in the opposite direction—accountability to the public for clearly articulated and specific educational achievement goals—than voucher systems that make competition an end in itself.

Now it may be objected that it’s possible to construct a voucher system less cavalier about school quality than Louisiana’s, and that a Romney Administration Department of Education would do a better job of “vetting” schools. But the conflict between no-strings voucher systems and those based on objective standards is not one of competence, but of philosophy. And moreover, even if a Republican Congress and White House (or states following their lead) were willing to partially abandon the parental-market-place principle and begin insisting on standards for curriculum and instruction, it would run smack into another ideological totem: The growing resistance of conservative religious institutions to any conditions for the use of public funds that might tread upon their “freedom,” however they choose to define it.

So don’t just laugh at Louisiana, or mock Jindal’s initiative as a blatant effort to pay off his party’s conservative evangelical “base” with public funds for their counter-cultural schools. It could be the wave of the future.