Artur Davis Would Rather Switch Than Fight

As regular readers know, I’ve been writing a fair amount–here and at TNR–about Bobby Jindal’s voucher initiative in Louisiana, partly in an effort to get people thinking about how such state-level initiatives would mesh with Mitt Romney’s proposal to completely unmoor federal K-12 education funds from any assessment of education quality and simply “strap them on the kids’ backs” and let parents use them wherever they want.

To my surprise, a TNR piece I did emphasizing the U-turn which no-strings vouchers represent from the once-strong conservative support for standards-and-assessments-based education reform, attracted the sustained attention of none other than Artur Davis, who posted a long rejoinder on his personal website. Davis, as many of you know, is the African-American former Alabama congressman who got trounced in a 2010 Democratic gubernatorial primary and has since decamped to northern Virginia, where he is mulling a comeback as a Republican candidate for Congress. He was also an early and active supporter of Barack Obama’s presidential campaign in 2008, but that seems like a century ago.

I indicated in an earlier post about Davis that what surprises me most about his recent political activities is how much it contradicts the passion he used to exhibit about the shameful underfunding of public schools in his very poor and majority-minority congressional district by the State of Alabama, under Republican management in recent years. So I’m a bit taken aback by his staunch advocacy in the latest piece of the abandonment of the very idea of public education.

I won’t go through a point-by-point rejoinder to Davis’ rejoinder here, but will observe that his defense of the Louisiana Department of Education for having belatedly been dragged into an effort to discharge its legal requirement to “vet” private schools receiving vouchers strikes me as, well, lame. And his criticism of my failure to conduct a comprehensive analysis of Louisiana private schools misses my basic point that the very philosophy of that state’s initiative–making “the marketplace” and parental choice the arbiter of educational excellence–is the problem as much as its implementation. Davis claims that “centrists” like me–and I don’t mind that label at all–have abandoned “education reform” by drawing a bright line between charter public school initiatives that emphasize objective standards of student achievement in exchange for public funds, and voucher programs that obliterate standards altogether. This is a line, by the way, that has almost always been sacred to “centrist” education reform advocates. Back when I was policy director at the DLC, I had a long, angry phone conversation with an aide to Joe Lieberman who objected to our categorical rejection of vouchers. But the line stayed in place.

No matter who operates them, K-12 schools receiving public funds need to be held accountable for what they teach and what their students learn, which is what a “charter” is all about, and is what voucher-seeking private schools and the politicians pandering to them reject.

I already knew Artur Davis had decided to join the opponents of quality public education when he switched parties. But now I know his counsel of despair for public education, consigning poor and minority kids to whatever educational offerings “the market” makes possible, was part of the bargain he accepted, and that’s just sad.

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.