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.
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.
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