Common sense should prevail over a failed ideology

Robert Mann’s recent critique of Louisiana’s education reforms begins with the astonishingly inapt metaphor of people being walled apart. In fact, allowing families more freedom to decide what school is best for their child is opening doors to thousands of children in New Orleans and across the state.

Mann goes on to deride the performance of charter schools, voucher students, and the government agencies overseeing these programs. Remarkably, he argues that Recovery School District schools were the worst performers in the city without noting that high performing schools are not put under RSD control in the first place. Mann might as well claim that a hospital is failing because so many of its inhabitants are sick. Like a hospital, the RSD seeks to supervise the recovery process and it should be judged on that basis. Recent test scores demonstrate that this recovery continues apace, aided in no small part by the RSD’s embrace of school choice.

Mann also points out that most voucher students score below grade level but fails to acknowledge that these students are poorer and in most cases have spent years trapped in the “community” schools he touts so enthusiastically. He also ignores the high rate of parent satisfaction among program participants. Then again, central planners like Mann are convinced that they know what is best and therefore rarely trouble themselves with the concerns of the people whose lives they seek to manage.

Mann appears to believe that communities require state imprimatur, leaving little room for the American tradition of voluntary association described so eloquently by Tocqueville. According to Mann, parents who elect to send their children to the world-class program at New Orleans Center for Creative Arts are retreating behind a wall, rather than freely electing to join a community of like-minded people with a passion for the arts. Why communities created by government bureaucrats are more authentic or desirable than those formed through voluntary action is something he never bothers to explain.

The basic principle underlying the expansion of school choice is that parents should have more freedom to select the right school for their child. This is particularly true when so many families are zoned into low performing schools, where rigid bureaucracies and irrational labor rules make it impossible to turn things around. Parents obviously benefit from a greater range of options, while schools that fail to offer children a secure and productive learning environment finally face the prospect of reduced enrollment. That such common-sense observations could be portrayed as controversial says much about the rigid ideology of school choice opponents. 

These reforms are not a cure-all. If parents don’t do their jobs, schools are going to struggle. Further, mismanagement and wasteful spending are a given in large government programs. But the evidence that these reforms are working is irrefutable – which is why Mann takes such pains to ignore it, preferring the gentle cadences of Robert Frost to the hard facts contradicting his argument.

Mann’s reliance on rhetorical flourishes and selective evidence is not surprising. Notwithstanding his impressive title at an academic institution, his career has been spent as a political spinmeister. These prolific generators of simplistic talking points have done much to inspire cynicism and erode confidence in political leadership.  

That such a resume would lead to a comfortable and tenured position at taxpayer expense is a topic for another day. In the meantime, readers should bear in mind that the view from Robert Mann’s ivory tower in Baton Rouge does not offer a clear perspective on the educational successes unfolding in New Orleans and around our state.