Who Says Vouchers Wouldn't Work?

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Also, the minischools' admissions and expulsion procedures were heavily regulated, so they had none of the freedom that private schools have to enforce strict educational and conduct requirements. Moreover, schools were given enrollment ceilings. Thus, the schools that offered the best programs, by parents' lights, could not expand to accommodate more students, and the schools in lesser demand inevitably enrolled the overflow from the more sought-after schools. Moreover, in stark contrast to a competitive market situation, teachers who garnered few students were guaranteed a salary on the OEO payroll, while good teachers whose reputation or teaching competence attracted more students would not be rewarded with higher salaries.

Mercifully, the entire Alum Rock experiment ended in 1975. Not a single school district in the country followed its example.

As dismayed voucher advocates examined the results of Alum Rock, many were worried that this bad imitation of vouchers would be taken to reflect on vouchers generally. Certainly, confirmed voucher opponents seized on Alum Rock to try to discredit vouchers. Voucher arch-enemy Albert Shanker crowed in the aftermath, "The washout serves to remind us that panaceas sold to the public rarely work in practice."

But Shanker and company were not entirely successful. An infrastructure of intellectual and academic support for vouchers continued through the 1970s and into the '80s. The idea today is kept alive partly by the efforts of the Education Voucher Institute (EVl), a think tank in Ann Arbor, Michigan, whose executive director is University of Michigan professor William Coats.

As in the beginning with free-marketeer Milton Friedman and liberal Christopher Jencks, support for vouchers over the years has come from across the political spectrum. On the right, William F. Buckley argued for vouchers in his book Four Reforms; sociologist Edward Banfield endorsed them; and in the past, the Young Americans for Freedom has made vouchers a high priority.

On the left, liberal and radical advocates of education reform such as John Holt, Nat Hentoff, and Jonathan Kozol-and, less enthusiastically, politicians like Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan (D-N.Y.)-have come out in favor of vouchers.

Nat Hentoff, columnist for the Village Voice and the Progressive, is typical. In a 1972 magazine article, he wrote about choosing schools for his own children. "I did visit our local public school," he recalled. "The children there were being treated like automobile parts on an assembly line. So my four children are in four different private schools, because each learns in a different way."

He continued, "If I were not able to afford those four tuitions, my children would be compressed into the single mold the public school chooses for all children, and at least two of them might well have dropped out by now.... Why not allow for some real democratic pluralism in public education by ending that monopoly through making public independent education also possible? Consider the range of choice that would then be available to parents now restricted to the monopoly system."

Hentoff recently told Reason that he still supports vouchers if they are given to schools that do not discriminate on grounds of race, sex, etc., and if they are not given to church-related schools.

Politicians have generally been skittish about the issue of vouchers. Few doubt that it has a lot to do with the political pull of the two big teachers' unions, the National Education Association and the American Federation of Teachers.

Vouchers found a desultory champion in Ronald Reagan. While governor of California, Reagan called for vouchers in his 1972 "state of the state" message. Voucher legislation was introduced, but disappointed supporters in the legislature complained to the Los Angeles Times that Reagan "gave the measure little support," and it died in committee.

Last spring, the Reagan administration proposed giving local school districts the option of converting their federally funded Title I program (billed as supplemental education services for educationally disadvantaged children) to a voucher system. A bill was drafted by the administration and sponsored by Rep. John Erlenborn (R-Ill.), but history may be repeating itself. After a single day of House subcommittee hearings, the legislation faded away, and the administration has reportedly done little to promote it.

There is one state government where vouchers may be getting a fair hearing. Rep. John Brandi (D) has introduced a bill in the Minnesota legislature to provide vouchers worth $1,475 per pupil for low-income families. The vouchers would be good at any school. Minnesota's Democratic governor, Rudy Perpich, is reportedly "committed to the market-based system" in education but has not yet endorsed the legislation (see Trends, Aug. 1983). Minnesota has already instituted a tax deduction for education expenses, and the measure survived a legal challenge on church-state grounds when the Supreme Court recently upheld its constitutionality.

Elsewhere, voucher advocates who have not met with success in state legislatures have turned in some instances to the ballot referendum. The first major campaign of this sort was in 1978 in Michigan, which lost by 59-41 percent.

Perhaps the most ambitious campaign came in California two years later. John Coons and Stephen Sugarman, two liberal Berkeley law professors, drafted a ballot initiative that would have set up a two-part voucher-a base amount allocated for all students no matter what their family income and a supplementary amount proportional to their family income.

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