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A tipping point for school choice?

Monday, October 15, 2012 - 8:43 am

Not unless lawsuits are cleared and more students participate.

The Wall Street Journal rightly named 2011 “the year of school choice.” Thirteen states that year enacted programs to allow K-12 students to use taxpayer funding to attend either a public school or private school instead of attending their assigned school, and Indiana’s is the most extensive and so far the most used.

This year or next might be the one in which we know, in the words of Jonathan Butcher in an article at the reform-advocating EducationNext website, whether all those choice bills “made more education options available or simply ushered in a new bevy of lawsuits.” The lawsuit filed in Indiana didn’t stop thousands of students from enrolling in the program, but legal action has put choice on hold in some jurisdictions. So the movement still lacks a strong identity.

Despite all the activity so far, only about 200,000 students in this country are now in private schools through a choice system, compared with more than 50 million who are attending public schools. Until the lawsuits are resolved and those numbers start to go up, we will not reach a tipping point at which choice encourages real reform in public education.

Some think that point never will be reached because there will never be enough spaces in private schools for all the students who want them. That means there will not be a critical mass of parents demanding reform. That means there will be no pressure on failing public schools to make the improvements needed to compete for students.

But what if the voucher programs themselves spur the creation of more private schools? And who knows what this trend will evolve into? We are already at a revolutionary moment no one though possible just a few years ago.

In the meantime, something is true that was not true before a few years ago. Poor parents now have an array of options that they never had before, the kind of choice only the well-off once had for their children. (Those choices include charter schools, which Indiana is also in the vanguard of.) That revolution has changed the way we think about public education and how we debate the issues. That alone is worth celebrating.

Recall that gun ruling?

State Supreme Court justices rarely feel job insecurity, but Justice Steven David might be just a little nervous this year. He’s the Indiana justice who wrote that infamous ruling that residents don’t have the right to resist illegally entering police officers.

He must pass a retention vote in the Nov. 6 election, and tea party activists have mounted a campaign to oust him. It’s an uphill battle – no justice has been removed from the court since 1970 – but such odds never bothered the tea party before