Teachers unions portray vouchers as a nefarious Republican scheme though support for—and opposition to—private school choice is often bipartisan. Witness how Democrats in Maryland and Republicans in Texas have stymied efforts to improve educational options for poor kids.
Last week Maryland’s Democratic General Assembly overrode GOP Gov. Larry Hogan’s veto of a bill that restricts his ability to enact school reforms. Under the federal Every Student Succeeds Act, states must develop plans to identify and rehabilitate low-performing public schools. In Maryland this job falls to the 12-member Board of Education appointed by the governor.
Democrats have passed legislation limiting objective measures of academic performance (e.g., student achievement, growth, graduation rates) to 65% of a school’s score. So schools in which the vast majority of kids fail state tests could still get a passing grade if, say, they score high on teacher satisfaction or attendance.
The legislation also prohibits the board from issuing letter grades to schools and converting failing ones to charters or appointing new management—interventions backed by the Obama Administration. Nor can the board offer vouchers to students who attend chronically low-performing schools. In other words, Democrats want to keep poor kids trapped in failing schools while concealing the evidence.
The National Alliance for Public Charter Schools this year ranked Maryland’s charter-school law the weakest in the country, and a lack of high-quality options may be driving parents from Baltimore. The U.S. Census Bureau says Baltimore’s population decreased by 7,000 between 2015 and 2016, the third largest decline among county-sized jurisdictions after Cook County (Chicago) and Wayne County (Detroit).
Ironically, many of Maryland’s black parents fled Washington, D.C. two decades ago amid the capital’s fiscal crisis and deteriorating public schools. But over the last 15 years Washington has been at the forefront of school reform. Former chancellor Michelle Rhee imposed rigorous teacher evaluations, eliminated tenure, introduced merit pay and expanded school choice. Nearly half of students attend charters while about 1,200 receive federally funded private-school scholarships.
The results speak for themselves: In 2015 Washington, D.C. ranked as the fastest improving urban school district on the National Assessment of Educational Progress in fourth-grade reading. On the other hand, Baltimore’s fourth-grade math and reading test scores dropped more than any other school district. Unyielding Democratic opposition to reform in Maryland may propel more parents in Baltimore to leave, undercutting tax revenues and public schools.
Meanwhile, Republicans in the Texas House have deep-sixed legislation passed by the state Senate creating tax-credit scholarships and education-savings accounts for low-income kids. After rural lawmakers complained that vouchers would harm their local schools, Senate Republicans restricted scholarship eligibility to the state’s 17 largest counties and capped tax credits at $25 million.
House Education Committee Chairman Dan Huberty says the bill is dead on arrival, and more than two-thirds of House lawmakers voted last week to ban state funds from flowing to private schools. In February Mr. Huberty called vouchers “a solution in search of a problem.” Would he like to defend the status quo in Houston where a mere one in five eighth-graders score proficient in reading?
In selecting Betsy DeVos as Education Secretary, Donald Trump picked a school-choice warrior who’s fought for years on the barricades. The setbacks in Texas and Maryland show why her experience and tenacity are needed.
Appeared in the Apr. 12, 2017, print edition.