Vouching for Vouchers


Vouchers: They’re Baaaaaack!” proclaims the headline on Peter Schrag’s article in the June 20 issue. Actually, vouchers—publicly funded scholarships enabling students to find the educational services they need from private providers—have been around for decades. Vouchers have helped needy kids go to private preschools and enabled bright college kids to expand their range of choices to independent colleges and universities, including those religiously affiliated. And, yes, they have helped thousands of disadvantaged kids in cities like Washington, Milwaukee and Cleveland find alternatives to dreadful public schools.

Of course, Schrag is quite right that 2011 has brought a greater boom in K–12 vouchers than ever before. Surely the Nobel laureate economist Milton Friedman is smiling down on all this and concluding that his concept of the universal voucher as a generator of sweeping education reform may be heading for realization, despite bitter-end resistance from those vested in the status quo. Actually, Schrag laid out one of the most thorough media summaries yet of the recent voucher victories, and did so with only a sprinkling of snarky comments, such as the jab about the Friedmanites seeming to care less about children than free markets. (Note: to seek the benefits of freedom of educational choice for all is to be prochild.)

Schrag writes with a certain wistfulness while acknowledging that principled liberals have been among the advocates of vouchers and observing that the privilege-preserving teachers unions are the last line of defense for the public school monopoly. It is almost as though he recognizes that he and The Nation are on the wrong side of history in defending a romanticized vision of a “common school” that has become more like a prison for families that are denied options in the private or public sector.

ROBERT HOLLAND, senior fellow for education policy, The Heartland Institute



Los Angeles

Peter Schrag claims that vouchers are the “ultimate weapon” in the educational reform debate. But voters rejected them by a margin of two to one in twenty-five statewide referendums between 1967 and 2004. The most recent example was in Utah in November 2007. More than 60 percent of voters in that conservative state said no to the nation’s first universal voucher program, even after the plan was passed by both houses of the legislature and signed by the governor.

It’s premature to declare that vouchers are dead, but they may not be as viable as reformers hope.

WALT GARDNER, Reality Check blogger Education Week



Schrag Replies

Oakland, Calif.

Yes, we’ve had a few (dubiously successful) voucher programs for years. And, yes (as my piece pointed out), voters in recent years have rejected vouchers in a number of states. What the ups and downs in the voucher story most reflect is our historic ambivalence about education: free choice for parents vs. required attendance in common schools bringing together children of all backgrounds; unforgiving academic and behavioral standards vs. equity, democratic opportunity and second chances for kids in trouble. Yet it also seems self-evident that, contrary to Mr. Holland’s assertion, the current voucher movement has as much to do with the right-wing victories in 2010, and the attack on labor and the distrust of large institutions, as it does with any serious evaluation of the relative merits of vouchers and charters.




Elizabeth Warren for President

North Dartmouth, Mass.

Re Ari Berman’s “Disarming the Consumer Cop” [June 20]: It is no surprise the banking industry spent millions lobbying against the eminently qualified Elizabeth Warren to head the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau. Nor is it any more surprising to see the Republicans launching their hollow rhetorical lies and distortions about the bureau’s definition and purpose, as they continue to run in lockstep with the financial sector, which pulls their strings.

Warren has been an advocate of the middle class for years, championing many causes that politicians won’t or don’t have the spine to address. Had the CFPB been active before the financial industry collapse of 2007–08, maybe we would not be in the recession we are in, or at least it would not be as severe as it continues to be.




Bluff Point, N.Y.

After reading Ari Berman’s in-depth article about disarming the CFPB, I’ve changed my mind about Elizabeth Warren. She was too good for that job. I hope she will consider the presidency. She has my vote already!




The Three Kinds of Republican Idiots

DeForest, Wis.

While I respect Eric Alterman’s estimate that “around half” of Republicans “are complete idiots” [“The Liberal Media,” June 20], I’d like to add to Alterman’s equation, since he refrained from approximating for the other half. At least 25 percent of Republicans are not “complete idiots” but merely misinformed (by the corporate mainstream media) idiots of all intelligence levels. The remaining quarter (accounting for a “liberal” margin of overlap, of course) are sociopathic idiots.




Borgesian Grammar

Asheville, N.C.

Patrick Griffin’s July 18/25 letter on grammatical constructions is helpful but incomplete. At a 1978 meeting in Chicago of the World Federalist Association, Leon Despres told a story going back to the workings of the Committee to Frame a World Constitution, at the University of Chicago, following the end of World War II. Antonio Borgese and Richard McKeon had a feud and were not on speaking terms. So Mortimer Adler served as a go-between, carrying messages back and forth even though their offices were just down the hall from each other. On one occasion he delivered a message from McKeon that made Borgese very unhappy, and he responded, “Oh, Mortimer, do not have said that!” This grammatical construction was immortalized among members of the committee as the “Borgesian past imperative.”




John Birch’s Boys

Kennet Square, Pa.

Peter Benner [Letters, July 18/25] should also be informed that the song “The John Birch Society” (like “Barry’s Boys”) was (pace Chad Mitchell) a product of a Julius Monk revue. The revue was Seven Come Eleven, the year was 1961, the venue was the West Fifty-sixth Street nightclub Upstairs at the Downstairs, and the music and lyrics were written by Michael Brown. Recordings of both songs were included in original-cast albums at the time.