Arguing with the straw man

No matter how fair-minded advocates for school vouchers or tax credit scholarships make their case, they’re often drawn into a straw-man argument.

Newark Star-Ledger columnist Bob Braun is the latest to criticize New Jersey’s proposed Opportunity Scholarship Act as “another gimmick masquerading as school reform.” Braun is right to point out that “vouchers won’t fix” the collapse of traditional public schools throughout the Garden State, but few of the bill’s proponents are claiming that it will. While Braun mocks Newark Mayor Cory Booker for invoking the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. “no fewer than three times” during his testimony in support of the New Jersey bill, he neglects the core of Booker’s argument. “This bill doesn’t remove our moral obligation to fix the failing public schools in New Jersey, nor does it relieve the crime that’s happening every day when we fail our children,” Booker told the New Jersey assembly’s Commerce and Economic Development Committee on Thursday, which approved the measure 5-0. “[But] it’s about time we give some small sliver of immediate hope for parents who are desperate in our city.”

This is not to say that advocates for school choice have never made far-reaching claims. Researchers John Chubb and Terry Moe didn’t help the debate when they wrote in their 1990 book, Politics, Markets & America’s Schools, that “without being too literal about it, we think reformers would do well to entertain the notion that choice is a panacea.” Whether Chubb and Moe’s rhetorical flourish helped build the straw man that opponents to vouchers, charter schools and other forms of choice have found it convenient to knock down is another debate. But for more than two decades, people like Cory Booker have been engaged in a debate over an assumption they’ve never made.

Nearly half the Democrats in the Florida Legislature didn’t back the state’s tax credit scholarship for low-income students because conservative proponents of choice convinced them that the program was the magic bullet to solve today’s public education woes. Rather, as one state representative, Darryl Rouson, pointed out last spring:

I believe that what this is about is a child – and I don’t care whether that child is black or white or blue or green – and if that child will flourish in a private school setting, he should not be denied that opportunity because his parents can’t afford it. I stand in support of this. It’s not a tough call for me.

Similarly, Algie T. Howell Jr., a Democratic member of the Virginia House of Delegates, recognizes there is a right way and a wrong way to create a model plan for choice. Howell has co-sponsored his own tax credit scholarship proposal for low-income students in Virginia. The reasons he gives for his support are the same reasons a growing majority of lawmakers have provided to explain their embrace of one tool in our repository of education reform to reach our most disadvantaged schoolchildren. Most importantly, Howell writes in The Virginian-Pilot, his proposed tax-credit scholarship would only be available to low-income students, and it would, for the first time, empower low-income parents to make the same educational choices that wealthier families already make.

Additionally, he concludes:

As a former high school teacher and School Board member, I know personally that many students simply do not thrive in a “one size fits all” setting. Too many students do not reach their full potential because the school they are assigned to is simply not a good fit. They may need a different educational setting, smaller classes or a different curriculum. They need a new opportunity …

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BY Adam Emerson

Editor of redefinED, policy and communications guru for Florida education nonprofit

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