The Voucher Wars

The Voucher Wars

Richard D. Kahlenberg reviews Terry M. Moe's Schools, Vouchers, and the American Public.


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.

On the other hand, Moe finds that voucher opponents have two key sources of public support. Most important, Moe says, is that Americans have a "public school ideology." He explains: "Many Americans simply like the idea of a public school system. They see it as an expression of local democracy and a pillar of the local community, [and] they admire the egalitarian principles on which it is based." The corollary of this finding is that Americans are risk-averse about privatization schemes and favor heavy regulation of private-school vouchers. Under plans where public dollars are to be used for private school tuition, Moe finds that 88 percent favor private-school-teacher certification requirements, 80 percent favor curriculum requirements, 83 percent financial reporting and auditing requirements, and 86 percent student testing. Americans also favor strong equity provisions: Eighty-two percent say parochial schools receiving vouchers should have to admit students of all religions, and 75 percent support a set-aside or quota for low-income students. (Even 57 percent of Republicans support the set-aside.)

Moe suggests that all this means that voucher advocates–at least initially–should focus on targeted, means-tested and highly regulated voucher programs, and that purist voucher supporters should learn to live with these conditions in order to blunt public concerns about vouchers. This line of thinking is similar to that advanced over the years by liberals like Robert Reich and Christopher Jencks, and by John Coons and Stephen Sugarman in their book Education by Choice. Moe does not fully address the problems of supply these regulations might create. There is evidence, in Florida and Milwaukee, that the more regulations placed on schools to qualify for vouchers, the fewer the number of schools that will participate. Some 70 percent of Catholic high schools require a test for admission, and it is not at all clear how many private schools would be willing to admit students by lottery, much less set aside slots for low-income children. Nor is it clear how many schools would go along with strict accountability provisions. Significantly, President Bush's federal voucher proposal did not call for testing in private schools, though tests are at the center of his efforts to improve public schools.

What do all the book's data mean for progressives? Can the premise of those voucher ads–that it is unfair to trap poor and minority children in bad schools–be harnessed for progressive ends? Moe's finding that equity has a very powerful appeal, is, of course, pleasing to the liberal heart. Conservatives who, during the racial desegregation era, defended neighborhood schools as the ultimate value have now conceded that compulsory assignment of students based on what neighborhood their parents can afford to live in is unfair–and most Americans appear to agree.

Taken together with Moe's data, which find that Americans have a "normative attachment to the public schools" and want schools to be highly regulated, one obvious conclusion is that Americans will back efforts to promote greater equity and choice within the public school system. Moe himself points out that public school choice is more popular than private school choice: Seventy-five percent say parents should be able to send their children to public schools outside their district, compared with 60 percent who favor private school vouchers. In the 2000 elections, voucher initiatives in Michigan and California were overwhelmingly rejected, and this year Congress and the President quickly agreed to a compromise on vouchers that provides children in failing public schools with an option to use federal funds for transportation to better-performing public schools. At the same time, public school choice provides a more satisfying answer to families whose children are stuck in bad schools than the traditional liberal call for gradual urban school reform.

On one level, the publication of Terry Moe's book symbolizes a certain convergence in the middle. Some conservatives are now embracing highly regulated vouchers that make private schools more like public schools, while some liberals are embracing a form of public school choice that, using the competitive pressures of the market, makes public schools a little more like private schools. Under public school choice, for example, public schools need a clearly defined mission in order to attract and recruit students.

On another level, however, the difference between these two approaches remains profound. While conservatives may embrace equity and regulation in the near term, their long-term game plan looks different. Moe says that if voucher leaders want to win they "need to pursue programs targeted at disadvantaged children (at least in the short run)." Once voucher programs gain a foothold and appear less risky to the public, stage two is to universalize them. Says Moe: "The traditionalists have an advantage they can trade upon as the game is actually played out over time: most Americans believe that vouchers (if adopted) should eventually be made available to virtually all children." Already, in Milwaukee, Mayor John Norquist has proposed lifting the income caps on eligibility for the city's school voucher program, from $23,328 for a family of three to $100,000, and then eliminating the cap entirely.

This is the ultimate danger of the voucher movement. Voucher opponents are right to worry that vouchers will "drain…resources from the public sector." But the biggest resource isn't financial (some vouchers are so small that the per capita expenditure of remaining public school students actually increases under the plans). The far more significant drain is that of motivated families, students and parents who have high aspirations and expectations, and put pressure on public schools to improve. At the end of the day, it is the people in a school–the students, the parents and the teachers–who drive school quality, and when the most motivated families leave public schools, those left behind are far worse off. Such is the lesson of voucher experiments in Sweden, Chile and New Zealand.

Public school choice, on the other hand, builds on a foundation of schools that are designed to take all comers. If greater choice is structured carefully to reduce the link between residential concentrations of poverty and school concentrations of poverty, it will have chipped away at the fountainhead of school inequality in the United States: the separate educations provided to poor and middle-class children. Moe sees public school choice as a first step toward vouchers: "Were public school choice to spread," he writes, "Americans would come to think of choice as a familiar, normal, and even necessary part of their education system–and this would encourage them to see vouchers as a closely related form of choice that is just a short step away, and not threatening or fraught with risk." But a more persuasive reading of Moe's data is that vouchers would become less viable, as Americans would see that they could get the benefits of choice (more equity and more freedom) without the dangers inherent in privatization. Americans favor the public school system for lots of good reasons–they don't like the selectivity and elitism of private education or the division inherent in private market segmentation.

Liberals can respond to the voucher movement by denouncing the exploitation of Ebony and her family for conservative ends. But the data in Terry Moe's book suggest a more constructive response. Whether intended or not, the book's polling results provide strong evidence to support a liberal counterattack that uses public school choice to help not just Ebony Johnson but her neighbors as well.

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