The Voucher Animus

Rumor has it that we will soon see an actual education plan from Mitt Romney, his team having been loath to wade into this debate during the primaries. I predict that it’ll include a strong push for vouchers, if only because this remains the clearest divide between the GOP view of education and the reform agenda of Arne Duncan and the Obama administration.

Most other distinctions are grayer today, involving degrees of difference about things like teacher evaluations, “common core” standards, and just how much discretion Washington should return to states.

Short of plain goofiness (as in “abolish the Department of Education”), vouchers are where bright lines get drawn. The conventional explanation is that Democrats don’t dare cross this threshold lest the teacher unions (already antsy about charters, merit pay, test-based accountability, etc.) forsake their traditional party—or simply sit on their hands come campaign season and election day, while Republicans tend to take the side of parents and don’t much care what the unions—or other parts of the education establishment—think or do.

It feels and acts like a political line—witness the political football known as the D.C. voucher program—yet not so many years ago this was primarily a split over platform language, and party positioning because vouchers were all but nonexistent. (For ages, Milwaukee, Cleveland, and a few wee towns in northern New England were the only places you could actually find any.)

That’s changed—and continues to. A few weeks back, one could already point to Indiana and Ohio, both with statewide programs. The D.C. program is back, at least for now. Louisiana moved the other day. And then there are kissing-cousin programs like tax credit scholarships in Arizona, Florida, Pennsylvania, and beyond.

Vouchers and their cousins are real today, thanks partly to political realignments, partly to the Zelman decision (which took the Establishment Clause issue off the table as far as the feds are concerned), and partly to mounting dismay over the performance of public schools, as well as the meager returns from other education reforms of the past two decades.

As vouchers have become real, however, the political picture has grown more complex. Eight newish factors are worth noting:

First, while the U.S. constitution is no longer a deal-breaker, some thirty-eight states have sundry provisions in their own constitutions that make it difficult or impossible to aid private schools and/or religious institutions and/or any sort of education program that isn’t “free and uniform.” (This is what killed the Florida “opportunity scholarship program” in that state’s Supreme Court in 2006.) Hence there’s a practical limit to how far vouchers can really spread.

Second, as religion has loomed larger as a political issue, evangelicals (most often Republicans) are keener and keener for it to play a role in public policy, including religious education and church-affiliated schools, while secularists (more apt to be Democrats) are even more resistant to public support for such schools.

Third, other features of private schools—that have nothing to do with unions—also cause palpitations among liberals (most often Democrats), such as selectivity in the admissions office (and the risk of “exclusion” of poor or disabled or minority or other “diverse” kids). Such anxieties may not cause them to keep their own daughters and sons out of such schools but a double standard often comes into play where “public policy” is concerned.

Fourth, even as the pro-voucher team has picked up a handful (but only that) of influential Democrats, a lot of state and local Republicans have grown somewhat equivocal about school choice—charters, vouchers, inter-district transfers, and more. Their own suburban constituents, whether enrolled in public or private schools, are averse to welcoming many of those kids into their classrooms, and their proud suburban school systems don’t much want to lose their own pupils, either.

Fifth, what was for decades the strongest lobby in favor of vouchers (and tuition tax credits and more), namely the Roman Catholic Church, is today neither nearly as strong as it once was nor nearly as committed to revitalizing its own schools. It seems to have lost most of the wind from its sails.

Sixth, private schools in general are queasy about government entanglements and rules, worried about “accountability” requirements, alarmed at the prospect of forfeiting their distinctiveness, fretful about losing control of their standards and admission processes, leery of disclosing comparable data on their own educational effectiveness, and, sometimes, legitimately unsure that they really can do a good job with those kids. Nor has American private education shown much entrepreneurial inclination to grow to accommodate greater demand.

Seventh, with state and local budgets tight, the claim that vouchers save taxpayer money over the long run is met with incredulity by school systems that can only see revenue disappearing along with headcount. And the argument that vouchers will be a needless and, for the taxpayer, costly windfall for middle-class families whose children already attend private schools is not easy to refute. (Of course, a carefully designed program may aid only “new” students.)

Eighth, and finally, the word “private” has grown even more suspect in American education circles today than it was yesterday. “Privatization” has sometimes gone badly. Some private operators of charter schools are greedy, self-absorbed, and uninterested in educational quality. (Likewise for private SES providers and such.) Early evaluations have yielded mixed results for privately operated “cyber schools.” Private school (and college) tuitions keep rising without evidence of improved results. And in era of transparency and accountability, the reluctance of private educational institutions to disclose key information about themselves, their students, their academic gains, and their finances—even to private organizations such as—has made them at least slightly suspect. (Why are they so secretive?)

I’m still heartily in favor of more vouchers, provided that the program is structured with an eye toward serving the neediest kids first and making participating schools reasonably accountable for their results. I do expect the momentum in this direction to continue. But I don’t expect it to accelerate. And that’s not just because of hostility from Messrs. Obama and Duncan.

-Chester E. Finn, Jr.

This blog entry originally appeared in the Fordham Institute’s Education Gadfly Weekly.

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