The Revival of the Private School Voucher Movement

A few years ago, the private school voucher movement looked pretty much dead. The definitive study of the nation's largest such program, in Milwaukee, found no evidence that 20,000 students who won vouchers to attend inner city parochial schools performed better academically than students in traditional inner city public schools. Barack Obama hit the campaign trail as an education reformer not afraid to piss off teachers' unions, but made it clear he wasn't all that interested in compromising on vouchers, calling himself a "skeptic" and a "critic" of such policies. One of his first acts as president was to cut funding for the D.C. Opportunity Scholarships, a small voucher program with mixed results.

Even prominent Republicans lined up to offer mea culpas on vouchers, prompting Greg Anrig to ask in a 2008 Washington Monthly essay, "How did one of the conservative policy world's most cherished causes crumble so quickly?"

Well. One mid-term shellacking and a few Tea Parties later, vouchers are back, and in a very big way. Yesterday the education committee of the New Jersey state assembly advanced a bill to give corporations tax credits if they donate money for private school vouchers. Florida' new Republican governor, Rick Scott–who is being advised by Michelle Rhee–is offering up a number of creative voucher and voucher-like proposals that would suck tax dollars out of the public schools and inject them into Catholic schools and private tutoring services.

The Pennsylvania state senate is considering a voucher bill that one Democratic state senator has called a small but "very expensive new entitlement program in the midst of an unprecedented budget crisis." Something similar is going on in Indiana under the leadership of yet another GOP presidential hopeful, Gov. Mitch Daniels.

Meanwhile, in our nation's capital, the Washington Post is joining the bipartisan advocacy group D.C. Children First in rallying to reinstate the Opportunity Scholarships, citing high rates of parental satisfaction among the program's participants. From New York, Democrats for Education Reform executive director Joe Williams is advising Obama to "play 'let's make a deal'" on vouchers in order to win some Republican support for the reauthorization of No Child Left Behind. 

As I said on Bloggingheads last week, I wouldn't have a problem with Democrats using the D.C. voucher program as a negotiating chip. But I wanted to sketch out this whole nationwide trend in order to make the following point: While many progressive education reformers believed championing the public charter school sector would end the push toward vouchers and more explicit school privatization, that has not turned out to be the case. Rather, the mainstreaming of "school choice" ideology has contributed to reviving the entire menu of school choice options, most of which–in one way or another–put the focus on a tiny number of children who end up winning lotteries to get out of traditional public schools, instead of improving instruction for the vast majority of kids who remain in zoned schools. 

7 thoughts on “The Revival of the Private School Voucher Movement

  1. Adam Emerson

    While Ms. Goldstein wants to attribute the attention vouchers are receiving to the mid-term Republican shellacking, she’s missing some important context that would challenge her contention. A New Jersey state assembly committee (it was actually the economic development committee) indeed advanced a tax credit scholarship plan for low-income students by a unanimous 5-0 vote. But the five members who approved the measure included three Democrats. And the bill is sponsored by Democrats in both the House and the Senate. Newark Mayor Cory Booker, a Democrat, testified to the committee that he supported the proposal. Remember, this is New Jersey. That kind of Democratic support in the face of union opposition there shouldn’t be disregarded.

    Additionally, Ms. Goldstein quotes one Democratic state senator in Pennsylvania who calls a voucher proposal there a “very expensive new entitlement program …” But the Democratic senate primary co-sponsor of the bill, Anthony Williams, has a different perspective: “Too many children are trapped by their ZIP code in schools that are not making the grade. Let’s open the doors to freedom and opportunity.”

    In other words, Democrats have a greater interest here than a negotiating chip. And the voucher “movement” has hardly appeared dead. Florida’s tax credit scholarship program for low-income kids has been growing by double-digits every year, and a major expansion of the program last spring had the support of half the Democrats.

    Why does this have such support? It doesn’t just help a “tiny number of children,” as Ms. Goldstein contends. As one Florida Democratic lawmaker, Bill Heller, said: “A scholarship for poor, struggling schoolchildren is in the greatest tradition of our collective commitment to equal educational opportunity.”

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  2. Dana

    Hi Adam. Yes, voucher supporters come in both the Democratic and the Republican variety, and always have. (Cory Booker is a longtime supporter, for example.) I’m making the point that our political moment right now is shaped by hostility toward the public sector, and that this originates on the right and has been adopted, to a certain extent, by the center-left.

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  3. Stuart Buck

    Mixed results: The DC voucher program was shown in a randomized study to increase graduation rates by 13 to 21 percentage points. That’s huge — name one other reform that has such a dramatic impact. And it’s much more important than test scores. Maybe the genius of vouchers isn’t that they produce sudden improvements in test scores, but that they allow students to find a better niche for themselves where they’ll stay in school.

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  4. Adam Emerson

    Understood, Dana, though I would be careful to avoid drawing such a broad conclusion. I’m not sure I would classify Cory Booker, for one, as someone with hostility toward the public sector. The momentum we’re seeing in New Jersey and Pennsylvania had been brewing long before the mid-terms, but with mixed success. The Democrats who favor this — Williams in Pennsylvania is a good example — largely lean toward a more egalitarian argument, less a libertarian one.

    Either way, I probably came off sounding more cantankerous than I intended. You wrote a good, engaging post, and I’m glad we can have this debate.

    Reply
  5. Stuart Buck

    Also, the last line is a false dichotomy: put the focus on a tiny number of children who end up winning lotteries to get out of traditional public schools, instead of improving instruction for the vast majority of kids who remain in zoned schools.

    In fact, research has unanimously shown that vouchers tend to improve public schools. See for example link to newyorkfed.org on Milwaukee and the following two papers on Florida: link to stanford.edu and link to caldercenter.org

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  6. Ken

    Even if voucher programs only match the performance of traditional public schools (which just about every study agrees is the least they do), they do so at a much lower cost per pupil.

    Meanwhile, the number one reason that choice programs don’t directly help more students is that anti-choice groups fight their growth. First they say “We won’t let you serve more children”. Then they ask “Why aren’t you helping more children?”

    In general, I think your post suggests a strong idealogical bias and/or an unfamiliarity with the facts. It has become a sacred value for many to be “anti-voucher”.

    Reply

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