A think tank stumbles into some familiar arguments

There is a reason Richard Lee Colvin was selected earlier this year to lead Education Sector. He was an accomplished national education reporter who left the Los Angeles Times in 2003 to lead the Hechinger Institute on Education and the Media at Columbia University’s Teachers College, where he guided other education reporters to be smarter journalists, myself included. So it is with great respect when I say I miss the nuanced leadership and analysis exhibited by Education Sector’s co-founder Andy Rotherham.

I wasn’t looking for an endorsement of private school options from Colvin when I read his thoughts yesterday on Indiana’s new voucher plan on NPR’s StateImpact. But I was looking for a more sophisticated conclusion than his assessment that the policy represented the outcome of a struggle between only two groups — market dogmatists and “common schooling” democratic advocates.

Further, Colvin slips into familiar ideological traps when he claims the “unfortunate” wave of vouchers this year is “undermining” already anemic public school budgets. We’re also beginning to see some peer-reviewed studies that show some voucher-like options are modestly boosting the academic performance at the public schools mostly likely to lose students to the programs, but Colvin dismisses any competitive effects with almost absolute arrogrance.

Rotherham has never endorsed vouchers, either, but he at least lives up to his reputation by taking a careful and balanced look at one of our nation’s most volatile education policies. He knows that taxpayers are seeing some financial benefits when programs like this are in place, and he also understands that we’re beginning to find evidence of the positive competitive effects that vouchers can have on public schools, but that we need to learn more.

We do need to learn more, and Rotherham is correct to also call out the more outrageous claims from voucher proponents and opponents alike. Here’s hoping the think tank he left behind can re-ignite itself as a responsible resource to sort the wheat from the chaff.

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BY Adam Emerson

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