If you want to know where school choice stands today, the No. 2 leader in the U.S. House of Representations gave a pretty clear indication Monday by opening a new battlefront and throwing an obvious lifeline to Republicans, moderates and conservatives.
And he certainly helped boost fans of school choice and parents who are impatient with the slow pace of reforms unfolding across the country and are awaiting leadership on Capitol Hill.
The new momentum arrived in the words of House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, Virginia Republican, who threw down an unmistakable gauntlet Monday in Philadelphia, saying in a speech that the Obama administration should withdraw its federal school voucher suit in Louisiana or else.
The Justice Department lawsuit questions whether the statewide Louisiana Scholarship Program, which offers vouchers to poor families, violates "long-standing federal desegregation orders."
Mr. Cantor demanded — threatened even — that Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. withdraw the federal challenge and vowed the House would act if he refuses.
The administration has said it filed the lawsuit to ensure the program is constitutional and nondiscriminatory.
But rightly characterizing the Obama administration's legal challenge as "absurd" and the voucher program a "civil rights solution," Mr. Cantor said, "If the attorney general does not withdraw this suit, then the United States House will act."
"We will leave no stone unturned in holding him accountable for this decision.
The attorney general will have to explain to the American people why he believes poor minority children in Louisiana should be held back, and why these children shouldn't have the same opportunity that the children from wealthier and more connected families," he said.
Mr. Cantor's tough talk should be welcomed by conservatives, Republicans and parents in places like the District, Baltimore, Philadelphia, Chicago and other school districts, where students have not faced discrimination so much as the slow-as-molasses-like education reform efforts that have left a generation of kids wallowing in academic mediocrity because of bureaucratic morass.
Make no mistake, that morass includes wasting hundreds and hundreds of millions of public dollars on aging, unsafe schoolhouses and failed academic programs that have left too many children behind.
Thanks to public charters and public vouchers, the mass exoduses have begun.
Charter schools have and are certainly doing their part to help lift students from the bottom rungs of the academic ladder (New Orleans and the District rank No 1 and No. 2 respectively in charter vs. traditional public school preference.)
Publicly funded voucher programs like the ones in Louisiana and the District are another reason for parents to pull their children out of public schools.
Their choices, of course, run counter to the Democratic Party with President Obama as its titular head and its union-backed loyalist leading his way. So, they want the full weight of the federal government to find fault(s) with vouchers from poor families — the very families whose children, as Mr. Cantor said, should have the same academic opportunities as wealthy families.
By breathing new life into the school-choice movement, Mr. Cantor also opened wide the door for advocates of choice to begin gearing up for the next education battlefront — congressional reauthorization of education funding.
The fight over school funding shouldn't be about which school gets the most money or which schools have the healthiest food choices — distractions like that focus on public school facilities instead of public school children.
So listen up, school choice advocates, because now is the time for all good activists to come to the aid of our children.
"Let me be clear," Mr. Cantor said. "School choice is not an attack or an indictment on teachers or public schools."
And that's the truth — even though the folks beholden to the status quo won't admit it.
Mr. Cantor, God love him, also said this: "The next time Congress considers a major education reauthorization, I believe we will adopt full school choice."
Let's keep Mr. Cantor at his word.
• Deborah Simmons can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
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