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Among the existing voucher programs, most aren’t for the general population. Of the 12 states with voucher plans, only four states and the District of Columbia offer voucher programs to low-income students or students in failing schools. The other states’ vouchers are strictly for students in remote rural areas and others with learning disabilities.

Vouchers so far have a mixed record. In some instances, charlatans and thieves have pocketed tuition money. On the other hand, other voucher-enabled schools have sent more graduates to college proportionally than public schools.

While as expected many Democrats castigated vouchers as a union-busting vehicle, a few voices on the political right also have been raised in criticism of choice.

“The voucher idea, which gained its notoriety as an alternative to public schools, is a full-blown, Washington-run, big-government program, dishing out billions of tax dollars as an entitlement,” Carol R. Horowitz wrote in the Mises Institute’s “The Free Market” publication.

In some states, Republican lawmakers have also shown themselves vulnerable to the pressures of the teachers’ unions.

When Texas Gov. Rick Perry, a favorite of many conservatives, tried to get the GOP-controlled House to go for a voucher bill, Republicans in the chamber, along with Democrats, slapped a ban on public money for private schools instead.

Mr. Jindal sees his battle as more than just an effort to reform education. He also believes Republicans sorely need to restore their reputation as the party with cutting-edge ideas to the day’s most pressing problems.

“We have to win the war of ideas,” he said during the RGA meeting last week. “We need to do a better job as a party of defining what we’re for.”

Gone from elected office are such ideas leaders as Mr. Thompson, Michigan’s John Engler, Jack Kemp and Newt Gingrich. And the Contract with America is now reserved for the history books.

The question for Mr. Jindal and many of the other GOP governors who gathered at Scottsdale is whether they can reclaim the ideas mantle, and whether the public will embrace their solutions.