Now that I've criticized major elements of Mitch Daniels' education agenda, I thought I'd highlight by far the most interesting statement he made at AEI today, because it breaks in a significant way with typical conservative, free-market school reform rhetoric:
"You cannot often enough affirm your commitment to the public schools. As I said, 90 percent of Indiana kids are in public schools today. I think even with the new option that's in place [private school vouchers], it'll always be close to that. I really believe that; I would be surprised if it's not. Therefore, there's a huge responsibility, and we should all share a commitment, to make the public schools better all the time. Semantically, it's probably important to talk about school improvement. Reform means different things to different people."
There's a humility here that is typically lacking among proponents of private school vouchers and other free-market education policies. The Republican budget proposal hung much of its education agenda, absurdly, on reinstating the tiny Washington, D.C. voucher program, which serves just 8,000 students.
Our universal public school system, on the other hand, is massive; it educates all but about 10.4 percent of American children, and employs some 4 million teachers. Just about 8 percent of its funding comes from the federal government, which means schools are largely locally-controlled, and somewhat immune from the whims of presidential politics.
Incentive programs like Race to the Top and accountability policies like No Child Left Behind can still have a big impact on schools, because American quality education is already so unequally distributed and underfunded that most local politicians hesitate to forgo even the small amount of education aid on offer from Washington. But it's always a good idea to remember that, for both good and ill, the organization and governance of American schools have changed very little since the early 20th century, in part because the system, as it is currently construed, is deeply-entrenched into every aspect of our society.
The small-scale voucher proposals on offer from GOP governors do nothing to change that.