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
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
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.