The Voucher Seduction

Late this summer, just as Texas Governor George W. Bush was beginning to convince a lot of people around the country that his state's public school reforms were lifting the test scores of even the poorest students, along came presidential candidate Bush bearing an altogether different message: when we fail, let them eat vouchers.

If he becomes president, Bush told a group of Latino business leaders in Los Angeles, he will take steps to transfer federal Title I money from consistently failing schools- $1,500 per child per year- and give it to parents to use in any tutoring program or in any alternative school, public or private, that the parents choose: "Whatever offers hope."

Maybe even Bush isn't convinced that Texas, which had been getting lots of adulatory media attention for its self- proclaimed high achievement standards and its tough school accountability program, is such a great reform model.

Bush's proposal is loaded with questions and unresolved problems. The $1,500, really a semivoucher, isn't nearly enough to cover tuition at most private schools or even at parochial schools. And in taking money from the public schools- money that's supposed to go to schools serving large numbers of low-income kids- Bush may leave the kids who remain in even worse shape. To compound the questions, if the money can be used in parochial schools, there are major unresolved church-state issues. If it cannot, there may be few accessible alternatives, especially in the inner cities, where most of the schools with low test scores- the schools that are generally defined as failing- are located.

And yet nobody should underestimate the political potential of Bush's proposal, and not only among Republicans and conservatives who, in recent years, have been the chief apostles of what they call choice. On the contrary, proposals like Bush's are pitched at a wholly different constituency- at moderates, at minorities, like the Latino business people before whom this proposal was first delivered, maybe even at liberals, and beyond them at the great American middle.

To be sure, the loudest voices for vouchers, an idea dreamed up by free market economist Milton Friedman some 40 years ago, are still the voices of conservatives and of the Republican Party generally: governors Jeb Bush in Florida, Tom Ridge in Pennsylvania, Robert Taft in Ohio, and Tommy Thompson in Wisconsin; the Christian Coalition; the right-wing Bradley and John M. Olin foundations; and an array of educationally minded conservatives, among them William Bennett, Lamar Alexander, Chester Finn, Jr., and Diane Ravitch, all of whom served in either the Reagan or Bush administration.

Minorities and Vouchers

But for anyone who looks closer, the news comes from a very different place. In most surveys, the majority of Americans give their local schools high marks, and most appear to be willing to spend more money to improve them. But in the annual Gallup Poll for Phi Delta Kappa, the percentage of Americans that supports some form of voucher has grown from 24 percent in 1993 to 51 percent in 1998; among blacks it's 59 percent; among Latinos, 68 percent. And while a recent poll conducted by National Public Radio, the Kaiser Family Foundation, and the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard shows Americans as ambivalent and "divided" on vouchers, with 42 percent in favor and 54 percent opposed, in a similar survey done for the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies, which focuses on black issues, 43 percent of the general population supported vouchers, more than half the blacks supported a means-tested voucher- one that would go only to the children of moderate- and low-income parents. In the Northeast and Midwest, black support for vouchers was well over 60 percent. (In Philadelphia, according to a poll conducted in April 1999 by the Annenberg Public Policy Center at the University of Pennsylvania, 72 percent of blacks and 79 percent of Hispanics favored vouchers.) Among blacks between the ages of 26 and 35, support for vouchers went through the roof.

There are other signs:

  • In Florida this spring, the Urban League of Greater Miami, breaking with the National Urban League, signed on to support Governor Jeb Bush's bill, now law, that establishes Florida's statewide voucher program, the first in the nation, which allows children in failing public schools to transfer either to another public school or to a private or parochial school with a $4,000 voucher. Support also came from black Democratic legislators like Beryl Roberts and Willie Logan and from Miami's African-American Council of Christian Clergy. "It was a natural for us," said T. Willard Fair, the president of the Urban League of Greater Miami.

  • In New York, the privately financed Children's Scholarship Fund (CSF), one of some 30 such programs, which this year gave 40,000 private school scholarships to low-income kids in scores of cities, announced that it had 1.25 million applicants- nearly all children from poor and low-income families- even though its scholarships provide only part of the tuition and parents are expected to contribute some portion from their own resources. CSF is funded largely out of the deep pockets of New York investor Theodore Forstmann, Wal-Mart heir John Walton, and former Disney President Michael Ovitz, but its advisory board includes, among others, Southern Christian Leadership Conference President Martin Luther King III and former Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Colin Powell.

  • In Texas, two years ago, the state board of the League of United Latin American Citizens (LULAC), the nation's oldest Latino civil rights organization, came close to endorsing a state voucher plan before backing off in the face of protests from influential members.

  • In Cleveland last summer, when a federal judge named Solomon Oliver, Jr., ruling that constitutional challenges based on church-state issues had a good chance of prevailing, temporarily blocked the city's voucher program, the poor and working-class parents who used the program saw the decision as a disaster for their children. Oliver quickly amended his ruling to allow those who had been in the program to remain in private schools for another semester or until the case was decided.

  • In Milwaukee, with a school enrollment of roughly 110,000, where some 8,500 poor kids are now attending private schools under a state voucher plan, Howard Fuller, the city's former superintendent of schools, now a professor at Marquette University and director of its Institute for the Transformation of Learning, is talking about creating a national network of blacks that supports options to existing school structures- vouchers, charter schools, and other alternatives to the existing system- because "we have to change the face of school choice to make it clear that support is not just coming from whites or from conservatives." The list of potential members- former Atlanta Mayor and UN Ambassador Andrew Young; former Congressman Floyd Flake in New York; state representatives Polly Williams in Wisconsin and Dwight Evans in Pennsylvania; the black Baptist ministers of Detroit who recently formed a Partnership for Parental Choice; the predominantly Latino Parents for School Choice in San Antonio; Professor Michael Nettles at the University of Michigan; Cleveland City Councilmember Fannie Lewis- is long and getting longer.

More important, perhaps, is the shifting rationale that accompanies that growing minority support. Much of the campaign for "choice" has been driven by Christian conservatives in pursuit of private-school subsidies. But ever since vouchers and tuition tax credits resurfaced as a major issue in the Reagan era, the policy argument, reiterated by people like John Chubb and Terry Moe in their book Politics, Markets and America's Schools, had largely rested on Friedman's original free market theory. School monopolies, they maintain, are like all cartels. They give clients no choice and producers no incentives to improve, and are thus subject to the same inertia, inefficiency, and arrogance as Soviet-style collective farms and steel plants. Choice, write Chubb and Moe, "is a panacea." (The fact that the teachers' unions have long been one of the Democrats' largest sources of funds has, of course, added passion to the Republicans' theory).

But every time open-ended, market-based vouchers have been proposed in the states in recent years, they've been defeated, either in the legislatures or, as in major initiative campaigns in Colorado and California, at the ballot box. Since there was no means test in those voucher plans- and, in order to accommodate the Christian right, there were few other restrictions- the biggest chunk of tax money would have been taken from the public schools and given, at least initially, to middle-class families who already had children in private schools. That made those proposals fat, easy targets for opponents to shoot apart.

The new rationale is principally an equity argument, and the policies that follow from it are more finely tuned: The rich have choices, first because they can pay private school tuition and, more importantly, because they can buy their way into the neighborhoods that have the good schools. Fairness demands that the poor, whose children are caught in failing schools, have the same opportunities. "You can't tie the passengers to the deck of the sinking ship," Howard Fuller says. "You have to give them a chance to get off."

The strongest version of that argument comes from John E. Coons, a retired Berkeley law professor, who has probably thought longer and harder about equity in school finance than anyone around. A Democrat and longtime voucher advocate, Coons contends that the left has completely lost its way on this issue. "Here is an educational system which prides itself on being 'public' but which provides access to the best schools only for the rich, meanwhile herding the workers and the poor into the state schools that operate in those neighborhoods where they can afford to live," he said in a recent speech. He continued:

Where . . . were the Marxist theorists whose vocation it is (or at least was) to expose such nasty instruments of class warfare? For that matter, where were- and where are- those Democratic politicians who so constantly assure us of their deep concern for the not-so-rich? So far as I can tell, the Democrats (my own party) are either running these state schools that warehouse the poor or- with the help of the teachers' unions- are busy in the legislatures and Congress making sure that nothing in this system changes except its ever-expanding cost. The rich choose; the poor get conscripted.

Because that rationale becomes more credible if vouchers are not perceived as subsidies to the affluent (who already have choices), every politically viable tax-funded voucher plan now in operation- Milwaukee's, Cleveland's, Florida's- either has a means test or, in what amounts to almost the same thing, allows only students in failing schools (as in Florida) to get tax-supported funds to go to private schools. The money goes, at least initially, to minorities and the poor. For people like Jeb Bush- or George W.- that may simply be the best way to get to the full-blown voucher programs that the right seems, at least in the abstract, to be committed to. But it is nonetheless a major departure from a generation in which, to use Coons's words, "pro-choice rhetoric . . . featured a self-defeating emphasis on market theory." And it ought to be a wake-up call for the left.

Vouchers and the Left

For those who have been around long enough, the new territory may not be entirely unfamiliar. Thirty-plus years ago, school choice was almost entirely a cause of the left. In the heady days of the 1960s, radical reformers looked toward the open, child-centered schools that critics like Herb Kohl, Jules Henry, Edgar Friedenberg, Paul Goodman, and John Holt dreamed about. Implicitly, their argument had the advantage of celebrating American diversity and thus obviating our chronic doctrinal disputes about what schools should or shouldn't teach.

Updated, their analysis has just as much salience today. Children are all different and learn in different ways, so aren't parents best equipped to decide where their own children are most likely to thrive? In a field where experts can't agree- where there are endless debates between the advocates of structured, phonics-heavy curricula and whole-language programs, about teaching math facts and discovery learning, about testing and multiculturalism and multiple intelligences, about the virtues of unisex schools for girls, about prayer and religion, about sex education and classroom discussion of sexual preferences- a single model prescribed by the state will always be a set of unhappy compromises that offends the private beliefs of a lot of parents and thus undermines their authority as educators of their own children.

In the 1960s, egalitarians believed that sooner or later school integration would equalize resources and in this way bring quality education to all American children. Then, as now, educational pluralism had worrisome centrifugal implications: the common school, after all, was supposed to be one of our essential instruments of assimilation and citizenship. The radical reformers of the 1960s made a tactical mistake, seeing alternative schools largely as a social or pedagogic vehicle- a way to get away from the old-fashioned desks-screwed-to-the-floor schools they regarded as coercive instruments that thwarted children's natural growth and curiosity; they thought too little in economic terms. And while there was much talk about alternatives- even about competition for public schools- equity issues rarely came up.

his is where liberals like Coons came in. It was Coons and his colleague Stephen Sugarman who, in the late 1960s, developed the legal doctrine that supported the constitutional challenge to the inequities between rich and poor communities in California's property tax- based school funding system, a theory that has since been used successfully in many other states. They showed that even where poor communities burdened themselves with exorbitant property tax rates, they could not generate as much revenue per pupil as wealthy communities could with much less effort. And since schools were ultimately a state responsibility, the state was violating its own equal protection guarantees. When the California Supreme Court in its two Serrano v. Priest decisions (one in 1971, the other in 1976) upheld the constitutional challenge, the state became the equalizer, first by providing additional support to poor communities and imposing what were, in effect, revenue caps on affluent districts, and later through the fortuitous effects of Proposition 13, which in essence turned the property tax into a state tax.

But in a series of books and articles, Coons and Sugarman argued that that form of equalization, which still assigned each student to a particular school, was never an ideal remedy- that the natural corollary to Serrano-like cases was a system under which the money would go directly to parents, provided that, like means-tested college scholarships, its value was pegged to family income. In the 1960s, when there was serious talk about vouchers in connection with Lyndon Johnson's War on Poverty, school choice belonged to the left. In the 1960s, both the feds and the Ford Foundation funded experiments with alternative schools. In the early 1970s, Representative Leo Ryan, a liberal Democrat (who was later killed in the Jonestown Massacre), started to organize a drive to provide all California children with vouchers that they could use in either public or private schools.

While all that seemed to have ended with the ascendancy of free market politics in the late 1970s, when, in Coons's words, "it became fashionable to argue for the deregulation of schools as if they were functionally the equivalent of banks or airlines," things seem to be turning again. Where vouchers had been easily perceived as attacks on the poor, they are now, with the help of that growing number of urban black leaders and with the growing ability of conservatives like the brothers Bush to exploit the issue, being increasingly represented as an instrument to help the poor. "Proponents seem at last to be convinced," says Coons, "that- at this stage in history- popular acceptance requires that choice be seen to help those who need it most. In due course a universal system may follow, but it will be the poor- not the market itself- who shall lead us."

The Risks

The question is where. Is this the beginning of a slippery slope in which the poor are simply the poster children in a process that will gradually erode support for all public education? Will the real choice go to the private schools, which can, in one form or another, cream the best and leave the toughest cases- the costly special-ed kids, the slow learners, the discipline problems- to a public system that has to take all comers? For voucher advocates, Jeb Bush's Florida "opportunity scholarship" plan, which Coons helped design, provides at least a partial model. The vouchers, which are the equivalent of what the state would spend on the same child in a public school, go to children in failing schools and can only be used in other public schools or in private schools that accept them as full payment for tuition, thereby making certain that schools won't simply raise their charges in proportion. It also requires private schools to accept voucher students "at random without regard to the student's past academic history" and allows them to expel them only in accordance with their published disciplinary procedures. In addition, the schools may not discriminate on the basis of race, their teachers must meet minimum qualifications, their facilities have to comply with state health and safety codes, and they must provide a school profile that includes student performance.

But in Cleveland, which began its voucher experiment in 1996- 97, a considerable share, though hardly all, of the first vouchers went to low-income kids who were already in private or parochial schools; additionally, the American Federation of Teachers (AFT), among others, has charged that the Cleveland vouchers are soaking up state tax money that could have gone to the restoration of full-day kindergarten and other improvements of the public system. In Milwaukee, meanwhile, complaints have been filed by People for the American Way, which, next to the teachers' unions, has become the nation's leading opponent of vouchers, charging that schools violated the state's voucher law by trying to discourage some applicants or by telling parents their children would be required to participate in prayer and religion classes.

Which, in turn, raises other questions, particularly about the fate of the failing schools and the students that, for one reason or another, do not or cannot leave. Coons argues that in places like Milwaukee, it is often the marginal students, not the best, who seek the vouchers, but in general, as one survey puts it, it is "the most advantaged of the disadvantaged" who are most likely to seek out alternatives to the neighborhood school. Voucher advocates claim that their scholarships usually cost less than what the public schools would spend on the same children, thereby leaving more resources for the remaining pupils, but the accounting is dubious if the costs of social services and educating handicapped children are included. And however much voucher proponents argue that once there is demand, suppliers will appear to take even the most difficult students, the public schools will always be the default system for those who cannot- or will not- find another place. Nor is there certainty about the new suppliers. In Milwaukee, at least some of them appear to be inner-city churches for which the vouchers may be not only a way to help children but also a means of generating revenues for themselves. Where that's the case, the constitutional church-state issue will be all the more difficult.

A crucial question is whether children who take vouchers to parochial and private schools actually do better than comparable kids in public schools. As in a lot of other educational research, the samples tend to be small and the variables too numerous to be conclusive. These include students who change schools or drop out, the differing levels of motivation of students and parents, and the corresponding levels of discipline (including expulsion) that choice schools can exercise as well as the varying amounts of money spent. [See Richard Rothstein's sidebar: "Vouchers: The Evidence."]

But in this controversy, the philosophical- and the political- issue of choice may be far more important than any statistics on achievement. For many parents who opt out of inner-city public schools, safety and school discipline are a higher priority than academic programs, which is probably why, in places like Milwaukee, parents give their voucher schools high marks even when there is no demonstrable improvement in their children's test scores. Not surprisingly, people who have chosen their schools- by moving to the suburbs, by getting into selective or specialized urban schools, or by buying their way into the Daltons and the Deerfields- have a psychological stake in their choice and usually give those schools high marks.

Poor black children, however, have no such choice. In the words of Michael Nettles, a professor of education at the University of Michigan and executive director of the Frederick D. Patterson Research Institute, who has collected great volumes of data about the education of black children, "[T]he pool of talent is too thin to expect public schools that primarily serve African Americans to become quality schools anytime soon." (The same point was made recently by Arthur Levine, the president of Teachers College, a liberal and longtime opponent of vouchers and one of the most respected voices in American education, who announced that it was time for "a rescue operation aimed at reclaiming the lives of America's most disadvantaged children" that would "involve a limited voucher program focussing on poor, urban children attending the bottom 10 percent of our schools" and that could be used "at nonsectarian private schools or better public schools in the suburbs.") Such assertions grow not from theory but from desperation: who can in good conscience argue that the more able or motivated poor students have to serve as hostages in dangerous or failing schools to protect the less able or, worse, to serve the cause of some political abstraction?

What's almost certain is that the nation's intensifying concern about education- the great ed scare of the '90s- has intensified the voucher issue as well. In state after state- Texas, California, Virginia, Florida, North Carolina, Kentucky, Massachusetts, Michigan, New York- there's no end of debate about tougher standards, about the end of social promotion, about high-stakes testing, and about increased accountability for schools, teachers, and principals. And almost everywhere, states are allowing the creation of charter schools, schools that are, in varying degrees, free of education codes and downtown bureaucrats and thus (at least in theory) provide choice and alternatives within the public system.

Vouchers and Charters

The charters have functioned as a kind of controlled-burning alternative to the fire of vouchers. Yet ironically, the debate- and the facts- about charter schools has itself begun to mirror the controversy, pro and con, over vouchers. In 1998- 99 there were 1,200 public charter schools around the country, up from two in 1992- 93, and their numbers are certain to grow. In some states, they enroll a disproportionate number of minority children and offer all sorts of programs and themes: technology, math, the arts, school-to-work. Some focus on low-income or at-risk students. In all those respects, they reflect the diversity rationale of the radical reformers of the 1960s.

But for all their promise, and despite the fact that they are theoretically accountable to a local district or to the state, a growing number of charters have become indistinguishable from private or even quasi-religious schools that offer Bible reading, give equal time to creationism, and, in some cases, are staffed by people who have only the most perfunctory training. In Fremont, California, an Islamic charter school, which gets full state funding, offers its 74 students a morning of academic training each day that's provided largely by parents under the supervision of a "facilitator"; in the afternoon, students attend the Annoor Islamic Institute in the same classrooms. In Michigan, according to The Wall Street Journal, National Heritage Academies, sponsored by entrepreneur J.C. Huizenga but tax funded as public charters, tilt so heavily toward evangelical Christianity that they are drawing scores of students away from private religious schools. Elsewhere county school districts have awarded charters, and the tax money that comes with them, to Internet distance-learning "schools," whose students, most of them home schoolers, can be hundreds of miles away, and where no one is quite sure where all the money goes. The charters have also provided a major opening for the Edison Project and other for-profit education companies, which now operate about 10 percent of the nation's charter schools.

And often, of course, the charter alternative is not available at all. Charters, requiring a critical mass of organized support from parents and/or teachers, are often hard and time- consuming to set up, especially for poor working parents facing the rigid school bureaucracies and unions of the inner cities. Some demand significant parent involvement, and, despite laws in many states requiring that they enroll a student body representative of the community where they're located, some are subtly as selective as private schools. [See Richard Rothstein, "Charter Conundrum," TAP, July- August 1998.]

What's changed far too little, even after nearly two decades of reform, is the huge achievement gap between whites and Asians on the one hand and blacks and Latinos on the other and, more generally, between high-performing (largely suburban) schools and the low achievers in the cities and many rural areas. The most important thing the new reform-driven testing programs have done is to make those gaps all the more apparent.

Worse, despite all the talk of reform and accountability, and despite some marginal improvement in minority test scores, public systems have not yet been willing to take the costly and unsettling measures, including merit-based hiring and promotion, that would get them the experienced, committed teachers and the quality courses that they, of all schools, so desperately need. In California, which has launched a great barrage of reforms, the state is now publicly listing schools by deciles according to their scores on a standardized test, from those that are in the top 10 percent to those in the worst 10 percent. But only a small fraction of the worst schools will be eligible for even the paltry and underfunded shape-up program that the state has put in place. Which is to say that while 800 schools (of 8,000) will be listed as the worst, only about 100 of them will get any help.

There are ample reasons to worry about the centrifugal social and cultural effects of a tax-supported voucher system. But by now school integration is largely a dream of the past, particularly for the young urban blacks who favor vouchers so strongly, and as it fades so, unfortunately, does the power of the argument about the importance of the common school in forging communities and assimilating the young. The forces of ethnic particularism that have often been cheered on by the left- the Ebonics programs, the widespread disdain among many teachers for what they regard as the Eurocentric melting pot, the political correctness- as well as the unvarnished racism in school districts like Oakland. And the right's flirtation with school prayer and creationist curricula is as apparent in many of our public schools as it is anywhere else.

None of these is an argument for a Friedmanite system. But that's not where the debate is now focused. What's on the table is more subtle, nuanced, and morally complex. And it carries a lot more political firepower. "Some say it is unfair to hold disadvantaged children to rigorous standards," George W. Bush declared in Los Angeles. "I say it is discrimination to require anything less- the soft bigotry of low expectations." For more than a generation, those children have been stuck in those schools while the educational establishment and its political allies have dithered.

The new politics of vouchers rest increasingly on the simple question that follows that neglect: what is the state going to say to the parents of the children who are the conscripts in those officially identified awful schools? There are plenty of problems in even limited vouchers, but until that question is answered, people like George W. Bush will have an issue. If the left doesn't understand that, the right will drive educational reform on its own terms.



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