Not-so-choice developments

Liam Julian

Tuesday brought two notable events on the education-choice front, one a clear setback, the other a surprise whose significance is yet to be determined.

The defeat of Utah's statewide voucher program at the polls was expected and widely predicted. The referendum and the battles leading up to it received widespread publicity, mostly because the debate between voucher supporters and their union opponents was overheated and the money each side spent on its campaign was significant. Washington Post columnist George Will called the Utah vote "more important to the nation than most of next year's elections will be," and he was not unique in ascribing such importance to it.

Still, this was no clear case of virtue undone by evil. Patrick Byrne, founder of Overstock.com, pushed for, and was a major financial backer of the campaign for, the Parent Choice in Education Act that passed the state legislature in February and that Utahns decided this week to repeal. Byrne said that Tuesday's referendum was "a statewide IQ test" that the citizens of Utah failed. "They don't care enough about their kids," he asserted.

Such language is unhelpful at best, and the amount of thought that went into Byrne's choice of words resembles the thought he puts into much of his education reform work, whether this voucher initiative or his ill-conceived "65 percent solution" (see here). The Utah voucher push was hasty and flawed on several fronts, and while creating more educational options for families is usually a fantastic thing, shoddy voucher programs do more harm than good--certainly they weaken the public's support of choice.

Utah's plan was, essentially, for universal vouchers on the cheap in a state without the private-school capacity to serve many students. The vouchers would've ranged from $500 up to $3,000 per child, based on socioeconomic status, but according to the Deseret Morning News, the average private-school tuition in Utah is $7,800--so $3,000 is not a lot of help for poor kids. Meanwhile, the state has only about 100 private schools boasting some 6,000 vacant seats for half a million eligible students. This design made it easy for opponents to argue that the program would have been little more than a middle class subsidy for parents seeking private school tuition while doing little to offer low-income children an escape route from failing schools.

Sure, the teacher unions deserve most of the blame for Utah's referendum outcome. They lavished enormous effort and treasure on the campaign to defeat it. But the unions usually deserve a lot of blame for the failure of most worthy education reforms to either get enacted or remain on the books.

But Byrne gave them an easy target. And insulting the people of Utah is both boorish and foolish. We hope he gives up on education reform and tries his hand at health care policy or maybe climate change instead.

As for the second and more surprising development on the education-choice front, it was the failed re-election bid of Indianapolis's Democratic mayor Bart Peterson, who on Tuesday lost his job to an inexperienced Republican challenger, Greg Ballard, a man about whom little is known. Peterson, by contrast, led Indy for eight years and is a tried-and-true commodity, and his ideas about education, and charter schools in particular, are good ones that deserve to be continued.

Peterson deserves credit for bringing charter schools to Indiana. In 2001, he teamed up with state (GOP) Senator Teresa Lubbers to push through charter-school legislation in the Hoosier State. And Peterson made sure that Indianapolis's charter schools would be directly accountable to him--he was granted the privilege both to start new charter schools and close the bad ones. It was the first time in the U.S. charter movement that a mayor became a school authorizer.

The first year Peterson wielded his authorizing powers he received 30 applications and granted four. By demanding excellence on the front end (and by closing schools when he had to), the mayor created a climate in which data mattered, performance counted, and quality was demanded.

It has paid off. Last year, the average pass rate for Indianapolis charter schools (which enroll a higher percentage of minorities than the district schools do) increased 6 points from 2005. Today, even with Peterson's rigid standards for approving new schools, over 4,000 students in the city are enrolled in charters.

The big question is this: Will Ballard continue Peterson's rigid accountability system? The mayor-elect is a charter supporter, says Kevin Teasley, president and CEO of the Greater Educational Opportunities Foundation, which operates charter schools in the state. But when it comes to accountability, he says, "who knows what Ballard's going to do?"

Ballard's background doesn't yield many answers. He earned his undergraduate degree in economics from Indiana University and then joined the Marine Corps; he served in uniform for 23 years and retired as a Lieutenant Colonel. Ballard then entered the business world, and according to his website, before winning the mayoral election, he was "a self-employed leadership and management consultant." He's written a book: The Ballard Rules: Small Unit Leadership.

Word on the street, though, is that Ballard, like many Republicans, lots of faith in markets and parental choice and little interest in government oversight.

If true, that perspective is unlikely to sustain the impressive quality of the Indianapolis charter-school system that Peterson created. Indy's high-flying charters are the result of competition, yes, but also a government that was extremely selective about who could start schools and vigilant about monitoring their performance. The market can do only so much of that.

Here's hoping that Ballard learns from Peterson's successes and Byrne's failures. School choice in Indianapolis already has a lot going for it--it'd be a shame to mess with it too much.

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