Vouchers' Ups and Downs

On his second working day in office, President George W. Bush presented what he called a blueprint for school reform. On May 23, the House by a vote of 384 to 45 passed an education bill that Education Secretary Rod Paige said was a great bipartisan bill.

This diplomatic praise puffed up the legislators, but it did not acknowledge that from the president’s point of view several not so funny things happened to his school plan when it reached the Forum. For instance, the House provided much more money than the president wanted to spend, but it did not give the 50 states as much flexibility in using these funds as he wished. Mr. Bush’s recommendation that the states test all students in grades three to eight has been kept, but in a weakened form.


The most striking departure from Mr. Bush’s blueprint was predictable. At the insistence of the Democrats, the bill dropped a provision for school choice that was a minor part of the president’s plana limited voucher program that would have allowed disadvantaged students trapped in failing schools to transfer to a better school, public or private.

At this writing in early June, the Senate has yet to pass its own school legislation. When it does, and the two versions have been harmonized in conference, the president will sign into law a school bill from which vouchers have vanished. They will not, however, disappear from the public square. Parental school choice may not yet be an idea whose time has come, but it seems well on its way.

The annual poll taken by the Gallup Organization for Phi Delta Kappa, a vast fraternity of school people, most of them from the public sector, has shown support for vouchers going up and down from a high of about 50 percent in 1991 to less than 30 percent more recently. Moreover, initiatives on behalf of private school vouchers were defeated in California and Michigan last November. But these events were not conclusive. The leading theoretician of school choice, Terry M. Moe, a Stanford University political scientist, argues persuasively that these surveys and initiatives do not accurately reflect the national temper because they were framed in ways likely to produce negative responses.

In any case, the very existence of those school-choice initiatives was itself significant, and the debate about vouchers will continue in Congress and state legislatures. The powerful teachers’ unions, the National Education Association and the American Federation of Teachers, along with Democratic politicians like Senator Edward M. Kennedy of Massachusetts, will advance two principal objections against vouchers. One is a question of constitutional law and the other of policy.

It will be said that voucher plans that include church-related schools would be unconstitutional because they would offend against the separation of church and state. This is far too sweeping a generalization. Constitutions spell out what the national and state governments can dohow far their power reaches. To say all voucher programs would be unconstitutional is as demonstrably false as to say that all such programs would be constitutional. No responsible defender of school choice advocates a wide-open voucher programone, for example, that would allow families to choose schools that discriminated racially. On the other hand, the Supreme Court of Wisconsin on June 10,1998, upheld Milwaukee’s Parental Choice Program, and later that year the U.S. Supreme Court refused to review this decision. During the 2000-1 school year, the Milwaukee program has made it possible for approximately 9,600 children from low-income families to choose private, including church-affiliated, schools.

Opponents of vouchers, echoing a criticism that former Vice President Gore made during a presidential debate last fall, will complain that programs like Milwaukee’s would drain money from public schools. This raises a question of policy, and the objection is based on error. Public schools are not the beneficiaries of the funds that governments allot for education. Children are the beneficiaries of those monies, and through these children the wider community also benefits by having its rising generations educated.

The public school is a creation of the state, one of several possible vehicles a state might adopt to ensure the education of its children. Everything a government supportsbuilding roads or protecting the environmentmay be considered to be taking money that could go to public schools. The real question in current voucher debates is how to provide alternatives for inner-city children who do not have access to effective public schools like those of Scarsdale or Grosse Pointe or Beverly Hills. Congress and state legislatures must not give up the effort to design parental-choice programs that can survive legal challenges.

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