In a recent interview with Reason, former Indiana governor and current Purdue President Mitch Daniels offers up some thoughts on a number of issues driving national discussions. Naturally, given that he is president of a major university, he is asked a lot about education.
Even though Daniels has been out of politics for over half a decade, he clearly recognizes the dynamics of big political victories needed to enact school choice. He explains as much in the interview:
Now, there is no special interest in our society as strong, as stubborn, as well-funded, and as permanent as the public education establishment. And there is no argument one can make—certainly not one based on welfare of children or better results—that is persuasive to folks who believe that the system itself and the adults in it are the primary priority. So to answer your question: You have to get to a political equation where you can pass these things over their efforts, which are always very sophisticated, well-funded, and untiring.
While not surprising, that’s a little depressing to read in print. Evidence and results don’t matter for reform and the need is a brute political force given the strength and funding of entrenched opposition. Life-changing opportunities for millions of students across the nation hinge on politics more than any evidence.
Daniels addressed the meaning of social justice too:
The starting point for me has always been that [the debate over school choice] needs to be defined by a term which has been, I think, improperly appropriated by others: This is a social justice issue. Social justice, first of all, cannot be allowed to [only] mean taking money from A and handing it to B. That can occasionally be just. But what is just is one of the fundamental questions always. And everybody should be able to approach it and lay claim to it if they have a good argument. So whatever social justice is, enabling poor people to have the same choice about one of the most fundamental of life’s decisions—the education of their child—qualifies, and so I always talked about it that way.
Daniels goes on to tout his reforms in enacting performance pay in public schools and reiterated again that it took political victories over studies or evidence to get there.
It would be great to get to a point where much of the fight over school choice and education reform is depoliticized. Unfortunately, it appears we are still a long way off from that kind of transformation. For the sake of optimism, perhaps it’s best to recall the phrase so well popularized by Martin Luther King Jr: “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.”