Who Says Vouchers Wouldn't Work?

Vermont's been using them for years, but the debate goes on.

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During this period, however, the opposition was far from asleep. Advocates of public schools saw that a movement toward vouchers would threaten their effective government monopoly over education. Local school boards and superintendents didn’t like the proposal. Teachers unions particularly opposed the idea, it being easier to organize a relatively small number of large public-school systems than a large number of small private schools. In addition, as Friedman had argued, the teachers recognized that a real marketplace for education would mean competitive pressure to hold down their salaries. So the National Education Association and the American Federation of Teachers began to allocate substantial resources to heading off the voucher scheme. Indeed, vouchers probably have no more passionate enemy than Albert Shanker, president of the American Federation of Teachers. For years, Shanker has written a column published as a paid advertisement in the New York Times, and several have been devoted to lambasting vouchers. In 1971, Shanker wrote, “The greater the free choice granted by a voucher plan, the more will the educational interests of poor, black and difficult children suffer.” (Never mind that “poor, black and difficult children” under the current system are ordinarily the ones with the least possibility of affording private alternatives to inferior government schools.) Our public schools. ..are designed to keep our society together,” he opined in 1979. “Vouchers are designed to use tax money to pull our society apart.” (Never mind that the all- important purpose of schools is educational, not social, and that in this purpose they have by wide agreement failed miserably.) And in a 1980 column: “There would be competition among schools in much the same way as there is now competition among toothpaste companies, auto manufacturers and department stores. Some enterprising schools might offer gifts to newly enrolling students in much the same way that savings banks offer such gifts to new depositors. Or. ..students might be offered rewards for enrolling their friends!” (Never mind that precisely such competition has resulted in largely satisfied toothpaste, auto, and department store customers.)

Shanker and his teachers union colleagues were first mobilized by a voucher study conducted in the late ’60s under Christopher Jencks’s direction at the Center for the Study of Public Policy in Cambridge, Massachusetts. The authors of the study endorsed education vouchers; but unlike the simple Friedman plan, theirs included a number of special restrictions on the vouchers. For example, they recommended that local government agencies be given a mandate to: —establish higher voucher payments for poor and mentally handicapped students;—regulate schools’ admissions and expulsions policies (“one critical notion in our report was that a voucher school should admit nearly everyone who wanted to attend, space permitting,” Jencks recently told REASON) and, —forbid parents to pay any tuition out of their own pockets to supplement their children’s vouchers. The Nixon administration’s Office of Economic Opportunity (oEo), still populated with a number of Great Society bureaucrats, had supported this study. Bolstered by rhetorical support from Friedmanite libertarians, OEO began in 1970 to look for a test site for a voucher experiment. But when they broached the idea in Seattle, San Francisco, and Rochester, they ran into a buzzsaw of opposition. Those who favored racial integration opposed vouchers because they saw in them a way out for white students, not a way in for blacks. The more OEO tried to contend with their objections, the more the anti-integration forces shied away from the idea. Church-state separationists were put off when Catholics supported the plan. Local superintendents and board members began to view the whole scheme as causing far more trouble than it could possibly be worth, especially in view of the continuing necessity for taking in enough revenues to meet long-term fixed costs for school plants. Teachers unions, as usual, were strongly and actively opposed. Vouchers’ best chance came in New Hampshire, which had no racial-integration problem and a governor and state board of education chairman who were ardent free-marketeers. They prevailed on the Nixon administration to offer New Hampshire a “free market voucher,” considerably less restrictive than the “regulated compensatory voucher” urged by Jencks and the OEO liberals.

Fortified with ever-increasing federal funding, OEO and the state finally got five school districts to plan for a test-until the teachers’ unions let loose their adamant opposition, and all five districts backed down. Finally OEO found a test site, Alum Rock School District, a largely lower-middle-class and lower-class area in San Jose, California, with one of the lowest assessed property valuations per student in the state. After lengthy negotiations between the agency and school district officials, a three-year demonstration project was established in 1972. It was set up to include 6 of the district’s 24 public schools. Under the plan, 22 “minischools” were formed at the six participating schools. Eleven of the minischools emphasized gen- eral basic academic skills, while various others emphasized reading, math and science, fine arts, cross-cultural learning, and learning basic academic skills through practical everyday activities. In the spring, each school would plan its minischool programs for the next year, and descriptions of all the district’s minischools were compiled and sent to parents along with voucher forms. For each child, parents indicated on the voucher form their first three choices of programs and of schools where the programs were being offered. Each student had a spot guaranteed at his or her neighborhood school (“squatter’s rights”). When there were not enough spaces in a minischool to accommodate all the applicants from outside the neighborhood, the available spaces were rationed out by lottery.

A “compensatory voucher” allotment addressed a worry of Jencks and his colleagues that in a voucher system, teachers and schools would want to teach middle-class and wealthy children while ignoring poorer children. To create a greater incentive for minischools to teach poor children, the voucher amount for Alum Rock students who were eligible for the federal school-lunch program was 30 percent higher. “Alum Rock can show the way,” the Los Angeles Times announced in 1973. They spoke a bit too soon. On the whole, the Alum Rock experiment proved to be a fiasco. A Rand Corporation study in 1974 found that in every voucher school, in all grades but one, students fell behind in achievement while students at Alum Rock’s nonvoucher schools essentially held their own. Robert Klitgaard of Rand called it “one of the starkest downward effects I’ve ever seen.” But the Alum Rock project was hardly a test of the voucher idea. From the start, the experiment’s design was far removed. from an authentic voucher plan. For one thing, private schools were effectively excluded. They were technically eligible for vouchers but had to comply with a host of district regulations concerning teacher certification, curriculum standards, student discipline, and more. For that reason, no private school ever actually received a voucher. 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 (EVI), 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 Pro- gressive, 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 Brand1 (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 suc- cess 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. Coons and Sugarman’s “Family Choice Initiative,” as it was called, was hotly debated in late 1979 and early 1980.

As could have been predicted, the state’s educational establishment was bitterly opposed. Wilson Riles, then the state superintendent of public instruction, stormed, “The idea is crazy. ...I see chaos [if it passes].” In the face of this opposition, the initiative was unable to gather sufficient signatures for ballot status. An interesting coalition of liberal and conservative Californians believe the time may now be ripe for another attempt at the ballot box. Roger Magyar, a Republican Party activist and state official during Reagan’s administration in Sacramento, and Leroy Chatfield, a former United Farm Workers organizer and the manager of Jerry Brown’s 1976 presidential campaign, have put together an organization called Parents Choose Quality Education. Their voucher plan has won the endorsement of Milton Friedman, and they hope to win sufficient signatures for placement on the June ’84 primary ballot. There has been a dramatic increase in popular support for vouchers in the last few years. Indeed, 1983 was the first year in which a majority of Americans in a national survey expressed support for education vouchers. A Gallup Poll conducted last June indicated that 51 percent of Americans would like to see a voucher system adopted in this country; 38 per- cent would not, and 11 percent had no opinion. The favorable responses were up from 43 percent in 1981 and 38 percent in 1971. The youngest group surveyed-people 18-29 years old were most in favor of vouchers (60 percent for, 29 percent against, 11 percent no opinion). And blacks at the grassroots level are even stronger in their support (64 percent for, 23 per- cent against, 13 percent no opinion). Yet many veteran civil rights leaders are adamantly hostile, because a variant of vouchers was briefly used in the South by local school boards and state governments during the 1950s to try to stave off school integration. Likewise, despite the strong support among Catholics for vouchers (63 percent for, 29 percent against, 8 percent no opinion)-not to mention the fact that some 3 million youngsters are attending Catholic schools in 1983-84-the US Catholic Conference has never taken a public stand for vouchers. Individual priests and bishops have supported the idea, but they have no solid institutional backing.

Roger Magyar told REASON that in California, church officials are apprehensive that a voucher system might exclude parochial schools, either from the beginning or later at the behest of a court ruling. Meanwhile, the American Civil Liberties Union is against vouchers for the opposite reason: it’s worried that a voucher system would include parochial schools. Burt Neuborne, legal director of the ACLU, told REASON that the organization is opposed to vouchers on Establishment Clause grounds (the constitutional provision that “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion’’). The irony here is that civil libertarians should be a natural constituency for vouchers. After all, government-run schools routinely trample on the civil liberties of families who disagree with the way their children are educated. Clearly, the popular support for vouchers in this country has survived and prospered without nurturing by the political establishment. One can only conclude that parents’ alienation from the current state monopoly in education is very strong indeed. So while economists propose and teachers unions dispose, the mass of parents out there may well come to consider education vouchers as natural as generations of small town Vermonters have found them.

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  • Spiny Norman||

    For the next 45 days...

    Still 45 days to go? I would have thought it would be less by now.

  • CE||

    I dunno... 51 hours a week sounds like a pain.

  • EDG reppin' LBC||

    Alt text: "Nick and Matt's first day in their Reason internships."

  • Fist of Etiquette||

    What is unusual about the education of these three children is that their families live in Vermont school districts that in effect offer tuition vouchers to some or all of their pupils.

    Yes, but they all lived under the threat of nuclear annihilation from Reagan, so what did it matter?

  • Slammer||

    Please tell me how many days are left.

  • UnCivilServant||

    It will always be 45 more days.

  • ||

    Washington bureaucrats, Chicago free market economists, Harvard sociologists, and teachers-union officials from New York to California have argued for years over the idea of education vouchers

    A Chicago free market economist? That has to be a mistake.

  • datcv||

    I think they mean argued over, as in, argued for and argued against.

  • staceyshea40||

    my friend's sister-in-law makes $70/hour on the laptop. She has been out of work for 5 months but last month her check was $14048 just working on the laptop for a few hours. Read more on this web site.. www.Rush60.com

  • Rob||

    It was a reference to the Chicago School of Economics, and several economists from the University of Chicago. Economists of the Chicago School would include Frank Knight, Milton Friedman, Ronald Coase, and George Stigler. To a lesser extent some people might also F.A. Hayek (who was more of a philosopher than economist) and James Buchanan.

    On a side note, do not assume a Professor of Economics at the University of Chicago belongs to the Chicago School (see Goolsbee, Austan).

  • CE||

    MOAR free stuff? No thanks.

    Just say no to government handouts and the attached strings. Educate your kids yourself, or hire someone to do it.

  • DeloresJGilliam||

    my buddy's step-sister makes $72 an hour on the computer. She has been laid off for 8 months but last month her payment was $12918 just working on the computer for a few hours. Here's the site to read more,,,,


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