On compromise and prudence

Compromise is rarely considered a political virtue. That’s why political analyst Peter Wehner made a distinction between compromise and prudence. “Compromise can’t be judged in the abstract,” Wehner wrote for Commentary. “It can only be assessed in particular circumstances. It takes wisdom and statesmanship to discern when to hold firm (on fundamental principles) and when to give ground (on tactics and secondary issues).”

The description helps us parse two different outcomes on school choice legislation in two states: Mississippi and Tennessee. In the former, at least one charter school advocate bemoaned the “compromised bill” that went last week to Mississippi Governor Phil Bryant, a bill that finally allows start-up charters in the Magnolia State and an independent state authorizer but also allows better-performing districts to effectively neuter that new state body. In the latter, Tennessee’s Republican Governor Bill Haslam decided last week to pull his favored voucher bill before letting any legislative members of his party amend it. Haslam sought a limited voucher program for low-income students in low-performing districts, whereas Republicans lawmakers wanted to enlarge it to serve more families.

No doubt Haslam wants private school choice in the Volunteer State. Last year, he directed education commissioner Kevin Huffman to lead a task force to study how a voucher program would best work and embraced the concept in January when he appeared with Jeb Bush at a forum on education reform. But he never once made room for negotiation; when legislators sought to amend his proposal with provisions that would have given vouchers to middle-income households, the governor killed the entire bill.

This is the second time in as many years that Haslam allowed a voucher proposal to die because it faced a legislative outcome that, to him, seemed less than perfect. In other words, he held firm on fundamental principles but gave no ground on tactics and secondary issues.

Contrast that with the prudence exercised by Mississippi’s governor and legislative leaders who wanted to enhance an abysmal law that prohibited start-up charter schools (only low-performing public schools have been allowed to seek charter status). Attempts to improve the law last year failed when Republican legislators, aligned with district superintendents, broke rank and voted against a proposal to open more independent charters.

Faced with a similar outcome again this year, Bryant and others gave ground on “virtual” charter schools, which will remain outlawed, and they agreed to stipulations that let districts with A, B, or C ratings approve or veto charter applications before they get to the state’s new independent authorizer.   

Those are far from ideal concessions, but the bill that Bryant is expected to sign does move charter schooling forward in Mississippi. Now as many as fifteen new and independent charter schools can serve students in the state’s poorest-performing districts. The alternative was the status quo. In this case, the governor tactically gave up ground to enhance the fundamental principle of charter schools. In the coming years, charter advocates can highlight the persistent weaknesses in the law and work to amend it again.

Bryant compromised, to be sure, whereas Haslam did not. But Mississippi students don’t have to wait for more and better educational options.

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