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.
In the years since, African-American and Latino voices in the inner city have taken up the same message. More recently still, Davis Guggenheim’s documentary Waiting for Superman, despite its gaping flaws, got broad support from the establishment, including some elements of the supposedly liberal media. Guggenheim isn’t pushing vouchers—his magic bullet for the struggling public school system is charters—but that hasn’t kept the film and its attack on the system from being used by voucher groups and libertarians to advance the cause.
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In the 1990s, when public charter schools became a halfway house between “choice” and the status quo, there seemed to be a clear distinction between vouchers and charters. Albert Shanker, the visionary president of the American Federation of Teachers (AFT) who helped launch the charter school movement in 1988, believed that with the right oversight and regulation, charters could bridge the gap and provide choice for teachers, parents and kids stuck in bad schools. In 1993, realizing that charters were being exploited by for-profit entrepreneurs, charlatans and ideologues, he turned against them.
But lately, the push from the Gates, Broad and Walton Foundations for “accountability,” charters and school choice—and in the case of Walton, for vouchers specifically—has morphed into the broader attack on the public school establishment. On the far right, deep-pockets conservatives like members of the Walton (Walmart) family, Patrick Byrne of Overstock.com and Amway heirs Dick and Betsy DeVos and their American Federation for Children (a name obviously designed as a jab at the AFT) are pouring millions into unionbashing politicians and Astroturf voucher PACs. (Betsy DeVos also happens to be the sister of Blackwater’s Erik Prince, who’s probably done more than anyone to privatize the military.)
Unlike liberals like Coons, the Friedmanites seem to have concerns that are less about children and good education than about privatization, small government and the blessings of the free market. Meanwhile, the Obama administration’s pursuit of charters, test-based teacher accountability and programs to shut down “failing” schools plays powerfully to the distrust in the system.
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Now, with Republicans in control of the largest number of legislative seats in decades—and with twenty-nine GOP governors as against twenty Democrats—educational conservatives have the best chance in years to put their ideas into practice. In the past couple of decades, voters in California, Michigan, Utah and Colorado have rejected voucher initiative proposals. The increasing GOP control of legislatures is opening a more direct route—and not just for vouchers but for the array of other measures attacking those “government schools.”
The big school bureaucracies, the NEA, and the larger state and local teacher unions have earned some of the opprobrium they’ve been subjected to. Through their rigid adherence to job protection rules created for very different work and conditions in a very different era, the unions often put their own interests ahead of those of their students. Under Shanker and now under its current president, Randi Weingarten, the AFT slowly began to understand the problem. The NEA is still trying to catch up.
But through the years, the unions—state, national and local—have also been the most reliable and vigorous defenders of the public schools. It’s hard even to think who’s second behind them. There are lots of reasons why the right is going after them, but that defense is surely high among them.
In her review last fall of Guggenheim’s movie, Diane Ravitch describes the film’s scene of a meeting in which the winners and losers of a charter school lottery are announced. As the camera shows the tears of the losers—parents and kids—she cites a writer who wondered why they couldn’t have just been sent the news in the mail: Were the charter operators exploiting the kids as pawns to promote their own cause? “I felt an immense sense of gratitude to the much-maligned American public education system,” she says, “where no one has to win a lottery to gain admission.” That’s the system the privateers want to kill.