‘Vouchers Unspoken,’ Predictable—But Unproductive

A couple weeks ago, when the Romney campaign unveiled its education plan, I predicted that it would quickly be characterized as a voucher program because it dares to include private schools in its choice proposals. Sure enough, in its first major story about the Romney plan, the nation’s newspaper of record, The New York Times, did just that last Tuesday.

It was no small task. The headline cried “vouchers”  even while acknowledging that the word was unspoken: “Vouchers Unspoken, Romney Hails School Choice.”The first word of the story was “voucher” but followed with an acknowledgment that Governor Romney never actually uses the word. Rhetorically the damage was already done. Readers knew right up front the Romney plan must somehow be all about this polarizing idea. The story went on to explain the Romney proposal for school choice in some detail. But by the end, it casually labeled federal funding for disadvantaged and disabled students, “vouchers.”

The story is a disservice. The nation needs both presidential candidates to step up to the challenge of improving education achievement, especially for our most disadvantaged students. Neither candidate has given the issue the attention it deserves. In the long run, education is the key to our troubled economy. But, if new ideas are immediately subject to caricature and politicization, we won’t be hearing many of them.

For some time I have been part of a group of education scholars assembled by the Hoover Institution, which issued a detailed analysis of federal education policy last February. We concluded, among other things, that the federal government’s role in education needed to be rethought. Not because we have some Tea Party inspired aversion to federal power, but because we believe the last decade has revealed the limits of the ability of Washington to fix failing schools, from a distance. In this recommendation, we are not far from the Obama administration, which has offered the states waivers from NCLB to experiment with their own methods of school improvement, among other encouraged innovations.

Our analysis goes on to highlight a long tradition in formal economics, known as fiscal federalism. That body of work has established the theoretical and actual benefits of competition among states and cities in the delivery of certain public services. Research provides considerable evidence that such effects are significant in public education—among small public school districts, between public schools and Catholic schools, and between traditional public schools and charter schools.

Our analysis also examines and endorses portable student-weighted funding, more popularly known as “backpack” funding, and already being implemented in some major school districts. The surest way to have students receive the education services to which they are entitled is to have every dollar of funding provided for them go wherever they go to school. For example, a disadvantaged student who enrolls in a more advantaged school should bring with him the money policymakers intended to serve him.

Fiscal federalism and backpack funding are just two examples of ideas with deep research traditions—not political motivations—discussed in our analysis.

The Romney proposal (to which I had some input as an initial member of his education advisory team, but in which I have no investment today, having stepped aside to avoid any appearance of analytical bias) is hardly identical to the work that my colleagues and I produced at Hoover. It does not, for example, include testing requirements that we considered crucial.

The Romney proposal does include ideas that would be genuinely new for federal education policy—like portable student-weighted funding. The proposal has little to say about private schools, and adds that private school participation would be a state option, not a federal mandate. In the end, it is a proposal about giving our neediest students more choice among public schools.

Whatever its other virtues or defects, the plan should be debated on the basis of what it actually proposes—and not a politically-colored version thereof. The nation desperately needs fresh thinking in education. It will never happen if new ideas cannot receive impartial hearings.

-John Chubb

This post originally appeared on The Quick and the Ed

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