Now that the Supreme Court has announced that it will decide the constitutionality of Cleveland's school voucher program, we may see an uptick in those annoyingly effective school voucher ads featuring a sympathetic African-American child, such as Ebony Johnson, who was stuck in a failing public school until a voucher program liberated her. The ads are like a continual rerun of the 2000 Republican National Convention, racially inclusive, compassionate and conservative.
Perhaps we should be thankful that the right has, at least for the moment, shifted its strategy of putting a black face on crime and welfare, and instead is depicting African-Americans as striving for educational op-portunity. Still, the approach is galling to those of us who don't see privatizing education as the next civil rights movement.
In any event, expect to see a lot more of this. The voucher movement has exchanged Milton Friedman for Floyd Flake. It's very smart politics, according to Terry Moe's new book, Schools, Vouchers, and the American Public (which, incidentally, features two African-American girls on the cover). Moe, a Stanford professor and Hoover Institution senior fellow, is an ardent voucher proponent who made his name when he published, with John Chubb, Politics, Markets and America's Schools in 1990. The book, which concluded that democratic control of schools is inherently inefficient and promotes bureaucracy, became the academic bible of the voucher movement.
Moe's new book is not an argument for or against vouchers; it is an analysis of public opinion on vouchers that is likely to be very influential in shaping the movement's future. Moe has written a nuanced and thoughtful treatise that goes beneath the notoriously unreliable single-shot question favored by the media: Do you favor or oppose school vouchers?
The simple yes-or-no question is unhelpful, Moe notes, in part because most Americans don't know what to think. "Despite all the political turmoil at the elite level," Moe writes, "fully 65% of Americans say they have not heard about vouchers." To the extent people know what they're talking about, they are torn, Moe finds–all of which means the future of school vouchers is very much up for grabs.
Moe found in his 1995 nationally representative survey of 4,700 adults that voucher proponents have a couple of things going for them, and some substantial obstacles as well. Champions of vouchers will be pleased to know that, fundamentally, most Americans think the current system of public education is highly inequitable and needs reform. Sixty-four percent of Americans agree that "families with low incomes often have little choice but to send their children to schools that are not very good." Moe returns to this theme throughout the book and concludes that "the equity issue is central to the way Americans think about their education system, and is potentially a very powerful appeal of the voucher movement as it seeks to attract support." Moe predicts that the equity theme will ultimately lead civil rights groups, which now oppose vouchers, to switch sides, leaving teachers' unions alone in defense of the status quo. (The one caveat Moe introduces is that low-income and less-educated parents are more satisfied with their schools, even though, objectively, they have the most reason to complain.)
The other good news for voucher proponents, Moe finds, is that most Americans think private schools do a better job of educating students than public schools. Fifty-seven percent of Americans think private and parochial schools rank better, not worse, in academic quality (5 percent rank them worse, 27 percent rank them about the same and 11 percent don't know). In predicting the future of vouchers, Moe writes, "it is of enormous importance that most people think private schools are superior to public schools." Along the same lines, people like the idea of having more choice among schools, both because they want the opportunity to better match schools to their children's individual needs and because the discipline of competition may yield school improvement.