For much of the 1990s, the conservative push for school vouchers was a top-tier issue. There was strong public demand for education reforms, and for the Republican Party, vouchers (or the phrase that polled better, "school choice") were the solution: what better way to improve schools than to give folks tax dollars to pay for private school tuition?
It also checked off a lot of political boxes. With this one idea, the GOP could (1) pander to religious groups, promising them tax dollars; (2) infuriate teachers' unions; (3) take steps towards privatizing American public education; and (4) appear compassionate towards minority communities.
As we now know, of course, vouchers became wildly unpopular. The Bush/Cheney administration gave up on the idea, and the issue slowly faded. Voucher opponents had effectively won the broader fight.
Or, at least it seemed that way for a while. Mitt Romney is quietly promising to create a massive voucher scheme if elected to the White House, and in Louisiana, Gov. Bobby Jindal (R) is moving forward with his own voucher plan.
State educational reforms signed into law by Jindal in April would allow low- and middle-income students in struggling public schools to receive vouchers to attend private schools. Similar programs have been utilized in about a dozen other states and have long been part of a broader educational reform favored by conservative groups.
In a lawsuit claiming that the bill violates the state's constitution, the Louisiana Federation of Teachers and the Louisiana Association of Educators are seeking to have the reforms struck down.
The Louisiana School Boards Association also joined 34 other school boards late last week in filing a similar lawsuit, saying that the imposition "put[s] public school systems in more peril than ever."
Though there are other voucher programs in place, Louisiana's appears likely to be the nation's biggest. The idea behind Jindal's policy is that education in the state will improve just as soon the schools struggling most lose their best students to private and other religious schools, who'll have their tuition paid by taxpayers, up to $8,800 a year, per student. (The vouchers will be limited to students of families making under $60,000.)
There will also be a system of "mini-vouchers," in which all students at struggling public schools, regardless of income, can receive tax dollars for private-school classes. The result is a system that would extend vouchers, or varying values, to nearly half of Louisiana's kids -- shifting billions from public schools to private schools.
If you're familiar with the larger debate, you can probably guess some of the problems here, which obviously include public funding of religion; leaving behind students in sub-par schools; and giving tax dollars to unaccountable private operations, many of which have little to no standards for quality education.
One school in particular is known for teaching children that the Loch Ness Monster is real. Now that school can get public funds from Bobby Jindal to tell kids nonsensical things ever day.
Ed Kilgore fleshed this out further.
In heading his state in the direction of universally available vouchers rationalized by public school failure, Jindal is not, of course, holding any of the private school beneficiaries accountable for results, or for common curricula, or, it appears, for much of anything. A big chunk of the money already out there is being snapped up by conservative evangelical schools with exotic and hardly public-minded curricular offerings, with the theory being that any public oversight would interfere with the accountability provided by "the market."
So if you want your kid to attend, at public expense, the Christian Nationalist Academy for Servant-Leader Boys & Fecund Submissive Girls, that's okay by Bobby.
Kevin Drum added, "So if public schools have lousy test scores, they're failures and their students all get vouchers. But if the private schools have lousy test scores, then....nothing. Presumably the magic of the free market will fix them up. And maybe it will. But this has always been the Achilles' Heel of the voucher movement: its virulent opposition to holding private schools to the same standards as public schools.... [T]hey want taxpayer dollars without being accountable to taxpayers."
Depending on the outcome of this year's presidential election, this debate may be coming to Washington in less than a year.