Two decades ago, while George H.W. Bush was still president, Republican governors like Tommy Thompson in Wisconsin began in earnest their long-brewing war on underperforming public schools.
Their idea — considered novel to many parents at the time though pushed by conservatives like economist Milton Friedman since 1955 — was to give parents legal permission, in the form of school vouchers, to send their children to the private secular and parochial schools of their choice.
The “school choice” movement caught fire in the 1990s and began to rack up results in both school districts and the courts, which upheld the legality of such solutions.
But under a different Bush presidency, the movement yielded to the No Child Left Behind legislation created when George W. Bush reached across the aisle to the liberal icon Sen. Edward M. Kennedy to craft an effort to salvage public schools rather than let parents abandon them. The effort caught the media’s fancy but eventually deflated when parents and teachers soured on its chronic testing requirements.
Now Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal and GOP executives in a few other states are taking conservatives back to the future with the most extensive public schools scholarship and voucher program in the nation’s history.
Predictably, as many of the 30-member Republican Governors Association meeting in Scottdale, Ariz., last week saw it, the powerful teachers unions went ballistic over Mr. Jindal’s program that, in concept, makes it easier to fire bad teachers and reward good teachers and let students in bad schools take some of the money taxpayers spend on them and use it to pay for enrollment in private schools.
The idea remains to force each bad public school in America to improve or perish in face of private or charter school competition.
Teacher unions are major sources of campaign contributors and volunteers for the Democratic Party and its candidates, from the local city council to the U.S. presidency. The unions pressed national Democrats and President Obama to squash Mr. Jindal’s program, which overwhelmingly benefits blacks and other minorities. The administration’s rational, carried out by Attorney General Eric H. Holder, Jr., was to claim that vouchers threaten to undo desegregation.
Black parents, however, turned the tables and petitioned to join with Mr. Jindal in a lawsuit to get the Justice Department to drop its opposition. Earlier this month the administration reversed course and dropped its efforts to secure a permanent injunction preventing the vouchers from being used.
The move generated headlines making it seem as if parents’ freedom to choose their children’s schools and competition in educational institutions had triumphed.
But Mr. Jindal is warning the administration’s action was a temporary reprieve and not a gift that would keep on giving.
Mr. Jindal notes that Mr. Holder simply dropped a permanent-injunction request in favor of a government review. And he warns the outcome could smother the voucher program with excessive regulation instead.
“The Department of Justice’s new position is that it wants bureaucrats in Washington to have the authority to decide where Louisiana children get an education,” Mr. Jindal said. “The obvious purpose of this gag order would be to prevent parents from learning that the Department of Justice might try to take their child’s scholarship away if it decides that the child is the wrong race.”
The drive by conservatives and many GOP governors to return to Mr. Thompson’s signature idea has been modest at best, making it harder for the GOP to regain its image as the party of ideas — of new ways of solving old problems.
More than two decades after Mr. Thompson brought vouchers to Milwaukee schools, only 12 states have any voucher programs at all and only four, along with the nation’s capital, offer vouchers to at least some poor students in bad schools.