More From the Department of False Choices

Since we’ve been talking about Bobby Jindal’s private school voucher program (which is currently facing a review of the constitutionality of its funding mechanism by the Lousiana Supreme Court), which isn’t getting rave reviews in Louisiana, I wanted to mention Michael Gerson’s triumphalist op-ed in yesterday’s WaPo about the majestic and invincible progress of an ever bigger voucher program through the courts of the Hoosier State:

The school choice movement — which germinated 50 years ago in free-market economist Milton Friedman’s fertile mind — recently counted its largest victory. The Indiana Supreme Court unanimously upheld the constitutionality of the state’s school voucher program. Under it, more than half a million low- and middle-income Hoosier students — and about 62 percent of all families — are eligible for state aid to help pay for a private or religious school.

This is what school choice traditionally has lacked: scale.

Though Gerson cannot bring himself to use the words “charter schools” or “public school choice,” he does allude elliptically to “limited choice” options in education, which are bad because they don’t directly take on the satanic forces of education unions and bureaucrats. The other word he doesn’t use is accountability, once the favorite word of conservatives when it came to education policy, but now a complete no-no. Accountability to the public for the use of public funds, the very definition (along with full and equal access) of what makes a public school “public,” would exclude vouchers that just shuffle taxpayer subsidies to private schools to keep on doing what they do, whether it’s good education or bad, or evangelical madrassa-style instruction in the evils of science and secularism–not to mention public schools.

Gerson’s too smart not to know that he is deliberately telescoping the education policy debate and in the name of his own definition of “choice” creating a false choice between backpack vouchers with zero accountability for results (other than to parents, sometimes under the divinely-appointed servant-leadership of Father Frank or Pastor Bob) and the worst stereotypes of old-style public schools with poor funding bases in the most troubled neighborhoods. What really infuriates me, though, is to see conservatives who fought so long for high-stakes testing and educational quality measurement throw it all away at the very moment America is about to undertake the most sweeping accountability reforms in history, the “common core standards” initiative, just so they can get taxpayer subsidies for religious schools, and/or strike a mindless blow against teachers unions.

As Gerson’s op-ed shows, conservatives are on if not over the brink of abandoning all interest in public education improvement and thinking of public schools as “government schools” that should be junked along with Medicaid and food stamps and all that other socialistic claptrap. They should at least be honest enough to admit how deeply reactionary this trend actually is, and stop calling it “reform.”

Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore, a Monthly contributing editor, is a columnist for the Daily Intelligencer, New York magazine’s politics blog, and the managing editor for the Democratic Strategist.