No Way Out
"I'm all for it," said Paul Vallas, chief executive of Chicago's public schools, when The New York Times asked him about the scholarship program organized by Wall Street billionaire Theodore Forstmann. "Here you have people from the private sector pooling their money to help make a child's education better. How can you be against that?"
Ask Sandra Feldman, president of the American Federation of Teachers. The scholarship program has "clearly become a stalking horse for vouchers," she told the Times. "You've got people telling parents over and over again that their kids can do better than what they do now."
In Feldman's view, apparently, celebrities such as Oprah Winfrey, Will Smith, and Sammy Sosa were tricked into promoting this subversive message, along with Democratic politicians such as Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan and Representative Charles Rangel. "It's all over television," she complained. "It's on Oprah. When you listen carefully, there is something going on about getting kids out of the public schools."
Feldman is right about that, but what's going on is not the result of propaganda by rich, voucher-obsessed Republicans. It's the result of deep and abiding dissatisfaction with the public school system.
Consider the response to the Children's Scholarship Fund, which started with $100 million from Forstmann and his partner, John Walton, and collected $70 million from other donors. More than 1.2 million families applied for the program's 40,000 scholarships.
Since only families of modest means were eligible–the income test was about the same as the one used for the federal lunch subsidy program–the number of applicants is astonishing. It included nearly one-third of the eligible students in big cities such as New York, Washington, and Philadelphia.
The response is especially impressive when you consider that each scholarship will pay just $600 to $1,600 annually for four years. This is not enough to cover even the relatively cheap tuition at a Catholic school; in fact, as a condition of the scholarship, parents have to kick in some of their own money, about $1,000 a year on average.
That so many people leaped at this opportunity suggests how desperate parents are for an alternative to government-run schools, especially in the inner cities. As Forstmann put it, "They're quite impoverished, they get their product for nothing, and they're lining up around the corner to pay $1,000."
In this light, the dismay of the teachers' unions is easier to understand. With such vivid evidence of the public school system's failure, the idea of giving families a way out just might catch on.
Indeed, a week after the lucky beneficiaries of the Children's Scholarship Fund were chosen by lottery, Florida Governor Jeb Bush announced a plan to give students in the state's worst public schools the means to obtain a better education. Under the program, families will receive vouchers worth about $4,000 each–money that will be subtracted from the budgets of the schools their children currently attend.
By giving parents a choice of schools, Florida officials hope to give schools an incentive to improve. Though the plan's opponents treat this idea as reckless and unproven, it happens to be the basic principle behind the provision of most goods and services in our economy. It's called competition.
The fact that primary and secondary education is subsidized by taxpayers does not mean that the market cannot be competitive, that it must be dominated by a government monopoly. After all, the government helps people pay for food, clothing, and shelter without taking over the agriculture, garment, and housing industries.
If the aim of public schooling is to make sure that every child receives a minimal level of education, the opposition to vouchers is puzzling. But defenders of the status quo seem to believe that the real aim of public schooling is to make sure that every child receives an equally bad education.
"If you allow vouchers," the dean of the education school at the University of Miami told The New York Times, "the students who voucher out of public schools will be those whose parents care about them." Meanwhile, he predicted, the poorest children with the most apathetic parents will remain.
In other words, vouchers are unacceptable because any responsible parent would jump at the chance to escape the public school system. It is precisely because government-run schools are so awful that people cannot be allowed to leave them.