Vouchers: A Liberal Plot to Destroy Private Schools


National Journal, December 23, 2000

Mr. William H. Gates Chairman and Chief Software Architect Microsoft Corp.

Dear Bill:

Since it is unlikely you will ever read this letter, I can be blunt. You have more money than is good for you. You've said that you want to give 95 percent of it to charity. That is admirable. But the fact is that your kind of wealth—$56 billion at the moment, fluctuating to as much as $100 billion—is a magnet for mischief. Foundations will squander it on trendy activism and self-congratulatory conferences. Let me suggest a better destiny for your fortune. You have it in your power to rescue America's poorest children from their failing public schools, while also saving America's nonpoor children from the coming abolition of private schools.

On Dec. 11, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 6th Circuit threw out Cleveland's school voucher program as a violation of the constitutional separation of church and state. All but 4 percent of the almost 4,000 students who received Cleveland's vouchers had taken their money to sectarian religious schools. The court held, "There is no neutral aid when that aid principally flows to religious institutions, nor is there truly 'private choice' when the available choices resulting from the program are predominantly religious."

Why did 96 percent of Cleveland's voucher dollars go to religious schools? Because the safer, better, largely suburban public schools—the sorts of schools that inner-city children might want to escape to—all declined to accept voucher students. (Guess why.) And also because the program requires private schools to accept the $2,500 voucher as full tuition. Only sectarian schools can afford to do that.

One doubts that the current Supreme Court will see things the same way as the appeals court. "The 6th Circuit's reasoning amounts to saying that because too few schools threw an educational life preserver to these kids, then no schools will be allowed to throw them a life preserver," says Clint Bolick of the Institute for Justice, a pro-voucher organization that is defending the Cleveland program. The Court might hold that the Cleveland program is constitutional as it is. Or it might hold that the program is unconstitutional, but that it can be fixed—not by being abolished, but by being expanded.

Even if the 6th Circuit's decision stands, today's voucher logjam will eventually break. Liberals' opposition is visibly softening, at least when voucher programs target the poor and minorities, who are vouchers' strongest supporters. The Cleveland plan is targeted with a vengeance; the participants' median family income, notes Bolick, is below $10,000. Blocking the aspirations of this group—who want nothing more than a taste of the educational freedom that nonpoor liberals take for granted—sits uneasily with liberalism's compassionate instincts.

More liberals, too, are coming to understand that the point of educational choice is not to ruin public schools, but to strengthen them. No one believes that the University of North Carolina would be better today if Duke University didn't exist, or that General Motors would be better if Toyota didn't exist. In almost every sphere of life, liberals have championed the notion that competition is good for consumers. Education can't hold out against this notion forever.

My guess is that not long after vouchers established themselves, they would be as controversial among liberals as food stamps, student aid, and housing vouchers are today. My further guess is that, after a shakedown, public schools would compete vigorously and successfully with private schools, just as public universities do. Tomorrow's liberals would wonder what today's liberals were so worked up about.

If public schools, liberals, and the poor would be the eventual winners, who would be the losers? Qualified answer: private schools.

According to Tom Loveless, the director of the Brookings Institution's Brown Center on Education Policy, today's private schools are for the most part unregulated. "There are some basic safety and civil rights regulations they have to obey, but that's about it." But government money comes with government strings. It always has, will, and, to no small extent, should.

Writing recently in The Washington Post, Richard D. Kahlenberg, of the Century Foundation, fretted that "unregulated private choice is likely to cream off the most advantaged" and that "unregulated private schools can be segregated academies." He needn't worry; voucher schools won't be unregulated. Taxpayers will demand to know why their money should support any schools that lack certified teachers, that reject affirmative action, that have leaky roofs, that produce low test scores, that duck testing altogether, that ignore special education, that teach only in English, that provide no counseling, that expel students without due process, that turn away too many applicants, that teach goofy curriculums, that shortchange girls' sports, that skimp on antidrug education, that ban gay clubs, that allow gay clubs, that teach too much about sex, or that teach too little about sex.

The public is accustomed to holding schools politically accountable, and to thinking of quality schooling as a right; it will apply both principles to voucher schools, much as it already applies them to health maintenance organizations, and may soon apply them to pharmaceutical companies. Some schools, especially religious ones, will hold out by shunning government money. But their number and market share will dwindle, as billions of taxpayer dollars pour into voucher schools. Over time, the character of American private education will change. Eventually, most private schools may look less like private schools and more like privately owned public utilities.

The qualification is that there would be more competition in education than exists today. Voucher money would seed thousands of new private schools, and public schools would be more competitive. In fact, competition would pressure ossified public schools to cut red tape, even as politics pressured private schools to spin more of it. Because public schools enroll almost 90 percent of the country's pupils, the net effect would almost certainly be positive.

If you happen to be a New Democrat, say, or some other variety of government-friendly pragmatist, vouchers are a great idea. Increased competition in the education sector as a whole will delight you, and the increased regulation of private schools won't bother you much. The Right's unalloyed enthusiasm for vouchers is a bit harder to justify. Conservatives want to get the state out of public education; they may succeed at getting the state into private education. Twenty years from now, they may be slapping their foreheads and saying, "What were we thinking when we crusaded to hook private schools on public money?" And the teachers unions, which by then may have extended many of today's anticompetitive public school rules to the private realm, may be saying, "Boy, were we ever lucky we lost that fight. Now all schools are public."

So the 6th Circuit has a point, but not the point it thinks it has. Vouchers pose the risk of a public-private entanglement that is probably constitutional (and certainly should be), but that is not without cost. A reservoir of diverse and rambunctious and independent private schools, where you can teach Afrocentric creationist gay sex education without apologizing to anybody, serves legitimate liberty interests and helps stem the conformism of McSchools. At least for the poorest children in the poorest schools, I'll take vouchers, and the strings that go with them, over the current system. But there must be a better way.

Bill, I think you can see where this is going. Some of the country's most successful school voucher programs are privately funded. The trouble is that these private programs are much too small. When the $100 million Children's Scholarship Fund offered partial scholarships to poor children in failing schools, it received 1.25 million applications, or 30 times more than it could hope to accommodate. Hundreds of thousands of families were turned away.

By my very rough calculation, your $56 billion could endow a fund that could provide partial or full private-school scholarships for anywhere from an eighth to a quarter of all poor school-age children, indefinitely. Because many poor children will want to stay in public schools—and because public schools will improve to keep them—you could give many, or even most, poor children a ticket out of educational destitution. You could do it at virtually no risk to private education. You could do it with no fear of entangling church with state. You could do it nationally and virtually overnight; the teachers unions and politicians couldn't say boo. You could make Rockefeller look like a piker.

Gates Scholarships would change the face of American education. Poor children, their hard-pressed parents, private schools, and ultimately public schools would all be winners. What do you say, Bill?