Gov. Mitch Daniels wasn't kidding when he said one of his goals for the last two years of his term was major education reform. The details beginning to emerge show proposals that are not timid – linking teacher pay to student performance, for example, and offering college scholarships to students who finish high school a year early.
The real stunner, though, is his proposal for a true school choice plan, a voucher system that would allow parents to use state funds to offset the costs of sending their children to private schools. If the governor can pull that one off, it would far surpass both the toll road lease and daylight saving time in sheer audaciousness. Vouchers have been opposed by Democrats and public educators for years, and their fight against them will be fierce.
Voucher plans have promise because of two things about them.
One is that they give poor students the kind of options only rich ones currently have. Even if the state vouchers aren't enough to cover the whole cost of a private school, they can make the difference in whether parents can afford it. Poor students are the ones most in need of a good education. How can we deny them the ability to shop for the best school?
And two is that allowing such choice will create competition that could be good in the long run for public schools and all students. Schools that have to improve or lose students – and funding – to better-performing private schools will improve.
Critics of vouchers have two major complaints, one valid and one not.
The criticism that raises legitimate issues is that school choice can end up siphoning off the best students (and the ones with involved, committed parents), making it even harder for those left behind. This possibility should be kept in mind when a voucher system is designed.
The bogus complaint is that vouchers somehow violate the separation of church and state. They don't, and the U.S. Supreme Court has said so. As long as the state treats all private schools alike – religious and otherwise – it is merely accommodating religion, not advancing a specific one.
The evidence on the effectiveness of the voucher system is mixed – critics and proponents alike will be able to marshal plenty of facts to support their contentions. And much will depend on how the plan is designed, what its limits are and what it will cost.
But public education needs drastic action if it's going to get where it should be. This is an approach worth trying – and monitoring carefully.