Florida Initiative Raises Question of Mixing Good Policy and Popular Politics

When it comes to school choice and education reform, quite often good politics and good policy are at odds with each other. That’s one thing to draw from reading this post from Tampa Bay education writer Jeffrey Solochek about an initiative on Florida’s ballot this year:

Teachers unions and their traditional allies filed suit against Amendment 9 two weeks ago, but they aren’t the only ones taking issue. A couple of prominent education researchers also see something wrong here.

Jay GreeneJay Greene and Frederick Hess can hardly be accused of being fellow travelers. Greene is a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute. Hess directs education policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute. But neither are fans of the “65 percent solution.” And neither likes the way Amendment 9 – pushed by Jeb Bush stalwarts on the Taxation and Budget Reform Commission – melds the 65 percent idea with a different policy issue involving vouchers.

What exactly is the problem? Well, thanks to the results of numerous top-notch studies, we know school vouchers “are better supported by top-quality empirical evidence than any other education policy.” But the history of vouchers succeeding at the ballot box has been less than stellar. Fresh on reformers’ minds is last year’s 62-to-38 percent defeat in Utah. Going back even further, an attempted 1992 initiative in Colorado lost by an even wider 2-to-1 margin.

Frederick HessOn the other hand, the “65 percent plan” has an initial popular appeal to voters (though Colorado struck it down pretty handily in 2006). So proponents have calculated that tying the two together on the same ballot initiative will help expand school vouchers in Florida. Is it a good political strategy? My friends at the Education Policy Center aren’t sure, but they do know that the “65 percent plan” makes for not-so-good policy (explained by Jay Greene here and by Frederick Hess here).

This year might just give us more proof that successful reform and popular politics don’t always mix.