House Majority Leader Eric Cantor is kicking off the new year doing something other than attacking Obamacare. This week, the Virginia Republican is helping The Brookings Institution unveil its annual assessment of school choice within the nation's hundred largest school districts. The study showcases the differences among districts in their support for school choice and competition.
Cantor, along with House Speaker John Boehner, has long been a supporter of school choice. Cantor makes it a regular practice to speak around the country about the value of charter schools and vouchers for low-income families to send their kids to private schools. Last year at a speech in Philadelphia, he decried the Justice Department for suing the state of Louisiana for its school voucher program. He accused teachers unions and school associations of blocking school choice efforts because it threatens their current system, "the only system they know."
He also predicted that "opponents of school choice and those who stand in the way will ultimately fail."
Brookings takes a more clinical view of school choice, generally agreeing with the basic premise that more school options for families are better than fewer options. But beyond that, Brookings' analysts note that there are a variety of ways that even the most well-intentioned systems fail. Their previous report on school choice gave the Recovery District of New Orleans an A, where all families must choose schools for their kids becasue there is no default. But the report noted that information on teachers, principals, and parent preference for each school is missing, making the choosing process more random than it needs to be.
In Washington D.C., which received a B, Brookings says that the school-by-school lottery system for charter schools creates a cascading effect of students that apply for several schools and wait "in line" for admittance to their first choice. (I confess that am guilty of this particular crime.) As a result, many Washington D.C. charter schools are oversubscribed.
By the way, Cameron County, Texas, and Loudon County, Va., were among several large school districts that received Fs under Brookings' analysis.
Cantor doesn't go this deep, offering instead a Republican political message on education. Many liberals see the GOP advocacy for school choice as a stealth way to publicly fund conservative religious educations for low-income kids. And while that may be one of the goals of some school choice advocates, the issue has also proven to be a winner among mainstream conservatives and even some liberal types. It's hard to argue with the idea that families should have options, even though opponents of school choice correctly note that expanding school options often leaves funding stretched too thin for traditional schooling.
For our insiders: What is the future of school choice? Is Cantor right that people who are uncomfortable with charter schools and vouchers will eventually lose the battle? What problems do school districts encounter when they experiment with school choice? How can they be addressed? What does an analysis like the Brookings report tell us about school choice across the country? Are we becoming increasingly Balkanized because of the school choice movement? What can be done about it?
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