Ensign’s charge only goes so far

ENSIGN’S CHARGE ONLY GOES SO FAR…. Sen. John Ensign (R-Nev.) has been pushing aggressively for funding for the District of Columbia’s ineffective private-school voucher scheme, imposed on the city by Republican lawmakers a few years ago. As part of his argument, Ensign took the debate in a rather personal direction.

His prime target: Voucher foe Sen. Richard Durbin (D-Ill.), who sent his own kids to private school.

In his closing remarks, Ensign called out private-school-sending, voucher-opposing types “including the chief opponent of this, Sen. Durbin.”

Durbin, in turn, said he and his wife sent their kids out of the private system to get Catholic education — but added that they happily supported public education and opposed efforts to use their tax dollars to support the private system.

Durbin’s defense strikes me as pretty persuasive. He doesn’t use the public school system, but he’s glad to support it. Durbin pays taxes to support public schools, but for religious reasons, also chooses to spend additional money on parochial schools. He’s not asking for taxpayers to subsidize his family’s decision. Ensign thinks we should.

But my problem with Ensign’s pitch isn’t just that it’s personal and unpersuasive; it’s also rather selective. To hear Ensign tell it, Durbin has the choice to send his kids to private schools, so he should support giving all Americans the same choice. If it’s good enough for the senator, the argument goes, shouldn’t regular ol’ families who can’t afford parochial schools have the same option?

What I’d like is for Ensign to consider this same dynamic outside of education spending. For example, every member of Congress has access to top-notch, taxpayer-subsidized health care. Does Ensign support extending the same opportunities to regular ol’ families who can’t afford insurance? After all, if it’s good enough for the senator, shouldn’t everyone else have the same option?

I suspect he’d say no. Ensign supports school vouchers because he wants to privatize education and he doesn’t like teachers’ unions. This isn’t about “choices” for lower-income families, it’s about a conservative ideological agenda.

For what it’s worth, the D.C. school voucher system has been a mess, and Ensign’s efforts notwithstanding, senators effectively killed the program last night. As Alex Koppelman explained, that’s a good thing.