For most of the half-century since economist Milton Friedman first advanced the idea of school vouchers, it’s been the ultimate weapon in our educational debates, always ticking just under the surface, never quite going off. But after last November’s Republican statehouse victories, the right, sometimes abetted by Democrats and liberals, has brought back vouchers and school privatization with a vengeance.
In combination with new state laws sharply limiting the collective bargaining rights of teachers and other public sector unions, mandating test-based teacher evaluations and expanding charter school programs, the voucher movement poses a serious challenge to the common school itself.
Early in May, Indiana Governor Mitch Daniels signed what is probably the broadest voucher law ever enacted in this country. A few days later Oklahoma approved tax credits for those who contribute to a privately funded private school “opportunity scholarship” program. In New Jersey, on May 13, a voucher bill was approved by a Senate committee with bipartisan support. In Washington, DC, the voucher program, which was killed by the Democratic majorities in the last Congress, is all but certain to be restored. In Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker, famous for his attack on union collective bargaining rights, is pushing hard to broaden Milwaukee’s voucher program to other cities and many more children.
Altogether, according to the Foundation for Educational Choice, a pro-voucher organization that lists Friedman as its patriarch, more than fifty-two bills have emerged this year, some passed, some still pending, in thirty-six states—among them Arizona, Florida, Ohio, Oregon and Pennsylvania—providing funding for vouchers, tax credits or other tax-funded benefits for private education. “No year in recent memory,” said foundation president Robert Enlow, has provided better opportunities for the cause. “Milton Friedman’s vision for school choice is becoming a reality across the country.”
And early in April, using a procedural dodge, a bitterly divided Supreme Court further heartened the movement by upholding Arizona’s law providing tax credits for contributions to “school tuition organizations”—scholarship funds for private and religious schools.
What makes laws like Indiana’s particularly notable is that unlike earlier voucher programs, which were limited to low-income students, some are now open on a sliding scale to middle-class children. In Indiana, families with incomes up to $61,000 will eventually be eligible, allowing about 60 percent of the state’s students to get some aid.
Walker’s proposal in Wisconsin would lift the income cap for eligibility and would thus become a tax subsidy for private and religious schools and the middle- and upper-income parents who could afford the tuition even without help.
Vouchers have never been an exclusively right-wing issue. In the 1960s liberal school reformers like Paul Goodman and John Holt, pushing for “free schools,” the “open school” and other escapes from what they regarded as over-bureaucratized “lockstep” school structures, embraced vouchers as a way of getting there.
Later, thoughtful liberals like Berkeley law professor John Coons, who helped launch lawsuits seeking equity in school spending, became strong voucher advocates as a way to allow poor and minority kids some way out of the stultifying ghetto schools in which they were trapped.