School Choice, Civil Rights, and Middle-Class Self-Interest

Over in the Corner, Kathryn highlights Micheal Flaherty’s excellent Wall Street Journal op-ed on the growing momentum for school choice in the faith community. As a co-producer of Wa iting for Superman, Flaherty knows this topic, and his anecdotes are compelling. He’s also right to note President Obama’s role in catalyzing at least some limited reforms. After all — and for the first time in my memory — we do seem to have a Democratic president who’s idea of “school reform” isn’t simply lifted straight from teachers’-union talking points. In fact, NEA officials didn’t invite either President Obama or education secretary Arne Duncan to its 2010 convention for fear that they’d be heckled off the stage.

The core barrier to meaningful reform remains, however, and it’s not the unions. It’s middle-class apathy. Unions represent a small minority of highly organized, motivated voters who can get their way only because the vast bulk of the voting public simply doesn’t engage with school reform. Oh, everyone’s for “education” and “the children,” but so far no single political movement or party has been able to coalesce voters around a concrete and meaningful reform plan.

Why not? We have a system that no one believes is working, education is always a high priority when voters are surveyed, and there’s no shortage of good ideas for reform. Yet most of these reforms end up impacting other people, not the middle class. Middle-class voters often adopt the mindset that while the public school system is deeply flawed, their kids’ school is the exception. If they don’t feel the pain of the system’s failures, they’re simply not going to expend their limited political energy taking on a very, very tough political fight. The recent Wisconsin showdown was made possible when voters perceived a threat to their fiscal future, not because they suddenly grew a spine for education reform.

We need to marry the passion of poor communities with middle-class self-interest. With all due apologies to Robert, one of the best single programs to do this so far has been Arizona’s tax-credit program. Giving families tax credits when they donate to tuition organizations is catalyzing school choice, providing tens of thousands of low-income students not just an opportunity to break out of the local public-school monopoly but to attend much better performing private schools. (I like the charter-school concept, but their freedom is inherently limited by their state status.)  The Arizona program doesn’t financially burden public schools (in fact, it saves the system millions of dollars), it gives middle-class families a direct tax benefit, and it provides poor students with a chance to succeed.  

I’ve said it before. What’s not to like

David French — David French is a senior writer for National Review, a senior fellow at the National Review Institute, and a veteran of Operation Iraqi Freedom.

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