Vouchers: Not so radical anymore

There's been a lot of chatter the past few weeks about President Obama's efforts to shift the American political center sharply to the left. Universal health care, caps on carbon emissions, and steeply progressive taxation have in recent years been considered "liberal" positions. Obama wants to redefine them as the middle of the mainstream.

So did Secretary of Education Arne Duncan just move the education policy center slightly to the right when he told the Associated Press's Libby Quaid that the 1,700 Washington, DC children participating in the city's federally-funded voucher program "need to stay in their school"? "I don't think it makes sense to take kids out of a school where they're happy and safe and satisfied and learning," he said.

Well, not so fast. As others have pointed out (here and here), Duncan didn't actually voice support for continuing the program indefinitely; rather, he would keep it on life support until all of its participants graduate from their current schools. And Duncan himself was careful to say that "I don't think vouchers ultimately are the answer."

But what's truly interesting is why Duncan doesn't think they are "ultimately the answer." It's not that he's worried that vouchers will drain public schools of needed funds, the chief complaint voiced by teachers unions and their allies in the education establishment. And he didn't say anything about the separation of church and state, another primary concern of many opponents. No, his argument is that vouchers aren't radical enough.

"We need to be more ambitious," Duncan explained. "The goal shouldn't be to save a handful of children. The goal should be to dramatically change the opportunity structure for entire neighborhoods of kids."

Wow. On the one hand, that rhetoric is straight out of the Great Society, and in line with the Obama team's audacious attempt to redefine what's possible in domestic policymaking. But it's also a clear reference to Geoffrey Canada's Harlem Children's Zone, which is trying to remake an "entire neighborhood" of kids. And what is at the center of Canada's educational strategy but charter schools. In fact, as the New York Times pointed out the other day, charters are proliferating like crazy in Harlem, which is "stirring concern" for public schools. This doesn't appear to bother Duncan one bit.

But not all Democrats are apt to follow his lead. In our home-state of Ohio, we're watching with wonder as Governor Ted Strickland seeks to kill off charters (either outright, by making for-profit charters illegal, or indirectly, by starving the rest of funding), while his budget maintains the state's small voucher program. Perhaps this strategy simply recognizes the obvious: with about 80,000 students in Ohio's charter schools and just 10,000 receiving vouchers, it's not hard to figure out which one is an existential threat to the public education order.

Once upon a time, vouchers were seen as the radical reform idea in education, giving room for charter schools to be their more moderate, measured, and mainstream cousins. But with the charter sector continuing to grow and voucher programs limited to small pilots, it's time to change our thinking. Charter schools are the "new radical" in education, and, thanks in part to Duncan, the new "radical center."

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