For school choice-loving Democrats to consider

This has been National School Choice Week, complete with thousands of events around the country to promote school choice. It was quite an organizational feat: The Education Department released new guidance on charter school lotteries, legislation was introduced in Congress to expand choice, papers were released, rallies were held, and much, much more took place. 

School choice — which includes charter schools, the “parent trigger,” and publicly funded “vouchers” that allow students to pay for private school tuition — has become a policy aim for both Democrats and Republicans, although some Democrats, including the Obama administration, don’t support vouchers.

Given that charter schools on average don’t do any better than traditional public schools and that there is no evidence that voucher programs in the United States have lifted the achievement of large groups of students, it is fair to wonder why there is so much enthusiasm for school choice among people who genuinely believe in public education (while it is easy to understand among people who don’t). There is far more hype about the virtues of school choice than there is reality.

Bipartisanship can be a great thing, but for those Democrats who believe that all forms of school choice are a liberal way to improve educational opportunities, the following might give them pause. This is from an e-mailed news release I received about an event this week at which Republican Sens. Lamar Alexander and Tim Scott unveiled “ambitious” new proposals on school choice:

Expanding school choice for America’s low-income families is rapidly emerging as the foundation of a conservative agenda to address poverty and inequality. Despite the billions of federal dollars that have been poured into the nation’s education systems, the US has not attained the high student performance one would expect from such a significant investment. And not all children are given an equal opportunity to receive a quality education. It is time we reconsider how to give all children the opportunity to excel academically, and consumer choice can be one part of the solution for how we can better spend our education dollars. At this event, held during National School Choice Week, Senators Lamar Alexander (R-TN) and Tim Scott (R-SC) will unveil new federal legislation that intends to encourage innovative state efforts to expand school choice and educational opportunity without imposing new federal mandates. [emphasis is mine]

Nearly a year ago education activist Jeff Bryant wrote this piece entitled “An education reform warning to Democrats,” where he noted that “the education policies that our current Democratic administration advances were, in a large part, invented in the oh-so awful red state of George W. Bush and Rick Perry.” He said:

So with both conservatives and liberals questioning the whole school accountability movement, Democrats need to reconsider their support for these flawed policies.

The notion of accountability came from a desire – approved by both political parties – to create a mechanism to ensure that schools everywhere didn’t overlook the rights of poor and minority children to receive the same quality of education  their white, better-off peers get.

More than a decade after NCLB became law, the achievement gap hasn’t closed, schools have become more segregated, and there’s evidence that test-driven accountability mandates are doing irreparable harm to students everywhere.

People who happen to actually know something about education have proposed alternatives to the testing craze. Democrats who want to avoid getting blind-sided by the next bipartisan agenda for education had better start checking those alternatives out.

Valerie Strauss covers education and runs The Answer Sheet blog.

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Valerie Strauss · January 31, 2014