The assault on public education has taken an odd twist lately in the right-wing news media–now targeting even the Bush administration itself. Case in point: the carping over the number of students transferring out of troubled public schools and into private or religious schools–not enough, to hear the right-wingers tell it.

Under the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB), schools that repeatedly fail to make “adequate yearly progress” must give students the option of moving to better schools, which may include charter schools, within the district. A recent Wall Street Journal (WSJ) editorial wants to go considerably further:

“Large urban school districts …respond that the number of students eligible for transfer far exceeds the number of seats available in better schools within the district. But that’s not an excuse for noncompliance; that’s a reason to let students attend schools outside their public district, including charter schools and private schools.”

The editorial quotes the conservative advocacy group Alliance for School Choice as saying public school districts are dragging their feet on telling parents about the opt-out option.

In late March, the Alliance filed formal complaints to that effect with the school districts of Los Angeles and Compton, Calif. Those complaints now are under review.

But why wait for due process when you can launch a preemptive attack?

Declared the WSJ editorial: U.S. Education Secretary Margaret Spellings “needn’t wait for that process and could take action against these recalcitrant districts and impose sanctions if necessary. Under the law, she has the authority to terminate federal funding and compel compliance but so far has been unwilling to use it.”

(Cutting off federal funding is a threat technology advocates need to take seriously. Federal funding represents only about 6 percent of general K-12 funding, but experts estimate one-third of all ed-tech expenditures depends on federal dollars.)

The WSJ editorial continued: “The reason school districts have been able to get away with this [foot-dragging] behavior is that no one is holding their feet to the fire. Education Secretary Margaret Spellings has chosen to hand out exemptions or look the other way instead of enforcing the law.”

With a speed rarely seen in ED’s dealings with the news media, Spellings issued a swift response to the WSJ editorial writers: “Instead of challenging reform’s opponents,” she complained, “you found fault with its best friend.”

The Bush administration “fought hard to ensure that public school choice and tutoring services were part of NCLB,” Spellings pointed out. “They are important accountability tools. We have urged school districts to partner with community and faith-based organizations …”

Of the four million students eligible to transfer out of struggling schools last year, Spellings reported, less than one percent–38,000 students–actually did so. What’s more, only between 11 and 17 percent of eligible students signed up for supplemental educational services last year, she said.

In a briefing in a church basement, in Queens, N.Y., before a backdrop that read “More Choices for Parents,” Spellings also called for legislation to give parents tax credits for children who opt out of struggling public schools. The tax credits would be to reimburse expenditures for tutoring, after-school programs, and private and parochial tuitions. Legislation for just such a state program was introduced in New York at the urging of Republican Gov. George E. Pataki, but it was rejected by the New York Legislature.

Until such legislation comes into being, Spellings will rely on public schools to carry the message. “We want to ensure that districts are living up to their responsibilities to notify parents about their options in a timely and easy-to-understand way,” she said during her Queens visit. “And there are a number of steps we can take to enforce these provisions, including withholding federal funds.”

Obviously, choice means different things in different contexts. For parents, it means one thing; for districts with struggling schools, it means something quite different: Give up your students or do without money. A choice like that would give Thomas Hobson reason to grin.

If excellent public schools were truly the objective, this strategy would seem completely wrongheaded: Let’s eliminate funding for the very schools that most need better resources; that will make them succeed.

Imagine the outcry on the right if this logic were applied to other struggling programs–such as, say, the war in Iraq. It seems increasingly clear, though, that good public schools aren’t really the objective at all. For varied and complex reasons ranging from union influence to student indoctrination, elements of the right wing seem hell-bent on killing public education. And now–just before they administer the coup de grace–they’d be much obliged if public education would dig its own grave.