Giving school vouchers a fighting chance


As the Campaign That Wouldn't Die finally comes to an end, it's easy to forget that there are other important stories in the news. For instance, the final weeks of 2000 have turned out to be a rough time for the school choice movement, which advocates allowing parents to use tax-funded vouchers at any public, private, or parochial school.

On Nov. 7, nearly 70 percent of the voters in California and Michigan said no to ballot initiatives that would have authorized somewhat different school voucher plans. And in Ohio on Monday, the 6th US Circuit Court of Appeals declared Cleveland's four-year-old school voucher experiment to be unconstitutional because it allows "diversion of government aid to religious institutions in endorsement of religious education."

Judicial skepticism about any action that seems to entangle church and state is nothing new. The crushing rejection of vouchers at the ballot box is more surprising because surveys find growing support for school choice. A Gallup poll this year found that 56 percent of Americans favored the idea, up from just 43 percent in 1996.

And yet, when voucher initiatives have been submitted for voter approval, the powerful teachers' unions have been successful in raising fears about damage to the public schools—which, for all their problems, are still held in high regard by most Americans. Public education is widely seen as an institution that promotes democratic civic values and brings together children of different racial, ethnic, and cultural backgrounds.

Notably, another type of reform opposed by the education establishment has done much better in ballot initiatives. In 1998, California voters approved a measure drastically curtailing the education of immigrant children in their native languages; a similar initiative passed in Arizona.

The idea of English as the basic language of public schooling appeals to the sense that we're all Americans. Vouchers may be seen as having the opposite effect.

But the noble ideal of "the common school" may be different from the reality. What schools should teach about values and civics has become a subject of bitter debate, with critics charging that many public schools are promoting divisive forms of multiculturalism and portraying American history as a cesspool of oppression.

Moreover, Department of Education data analyzed in the 1998 Brookings Institution book "Learning from School Choice" contradict the assumption that private schooling is less conducive to racial integration or civic virtue.

In 1992, 55 percent of public school students but only 41 percent of those in private schools were in classrooms where at least 90 percent of students belonged to the same racial group. Nearly a third of private school students but only 18 percent of their public school peers strongly agreed that their schoolmates have friendships across racial and ethnic lines.

Private school administrators are more likely than their public-school counterparts to agree that their schools promote good citizenship, and private school students are more likely to be involved in volunteer work.

Constitutional questions about the use of taxpayer-funded vouchers in religious schools remain; this issue is likely to reach the Supreme Court in the near future. Voucher supporters make a convincing argument that the money does not go to the schools themselves, but to parents who choose where to spend it—just as college students can use federal tuition grants or loans to attend schools with a religious affiliation.

School choice is often portrayed as part of a right-wing effort to undermine government institutions. Yet the highest level of support for vouchers—more than 70 percent—is found among low-income African-Americans.

There are signs that the liberal opinion elites are coming around as well. In November, the Washington Post praised Michigan's voucher proposal and noted that while voucher programs have potential flaws, things couldn't get much worse than the status quo for kids trapped in poor schools.

The New Republic has also given vouchers a qualified endorsement, pointing to positive evidence from several states that have experimented with such programs (and to the overwhelming response of low-income parents to private scholarship programs allowing them to take their children out of public schools). Not only have children who are using public aid to attend private schools done better academically but, in some cases, competition has spurred floundering public schools to shape up.

Despite the setbacks, the voucher movement is not dead, though its successes are likely to come from small-scale local programs rather than statewide initiatives. School choice is not a panacea, but it's an experiment that deserves a chance. Those who have confidence in public schools shouldn't be afraid to see how such experiments will work.