Conservatives are going to wake up one morning to discover that they've won the battle and lost the war over vouchers. Unable to stem the continuing decline of our government schools in spite of hard-fought (and many victorious) battles over condoms, health texts, the Pledge of Allegiance, and phonics, many conservatives have chosen to rally behind the banner of school choice, better known as vouchers. Voucher proponents have predicted that the "free market" competition resulting from vouchers will improve government schools and simultaneously "break the back of the unions."
Conservative belief in the efficacy of vouchers to cure school ills has made support for vouchers a litmus test in many elections. Conservatives who oppose vouchers are sometimes considered traitors to the cause and maybe even moles for the NEA. Conservative voucher supporters either ignore or downplay arguments against vouchers based upon their negative effects upon private schools. The third position, which supports neither vouchers nor the NEA protectionist position, has received little attention in the major media. Nevertheless, the third position has been slowly turning the tide. Particularly among conservatives, many now see the damage that vouchers will cause and no longer support efforts to promote them.
Unfortunately, many key organizations remain committed to vouchers. Perhaps they've staked too much of their reputation on this issue, and it's embarrassing to reverse themselves at this point. But if they don't, their embarrassment promises to be much greater when the whole movement is co-opted by the liberals. And co-opted it will be.
Liberals have been masterful at turning conservative issues to their benefit--taking the original concept, then tweaking it to achieve their own purposes. Witness welfare reform. We're finally moving people off the welfare roles and into employment. But to accomplish it the liberals have gained tremendous expansion of daycare/childcare programs, taxpayer-financed job training, and guaranteed health care. Welfare reform thus far has simply traded off one form of socialism for a number of others.
Liberals are beginning to realize that the NEA's opposition to vouchers speaks for only a fraction of their constituency. As blacks and other minority groups have discovered the possibilities of vouchers, they have begun to clamor for these tickets out of their "ghetto" schools. Polly Williams, the Wisconsin state legislator, former welfare mother, and former campaign manager for Jesse Jackson, led the way, almost single-handedly pushing through the landmark Milwaukee voucher program.
But Polly Williams was only the first of many liberal Democrats to support vouchers. Hugh Price, head of the National Urban League, recognizes that a good education is absolutely essential for blacks to compete successfully in what he calls a "capitalist democracy." Before a mostly black audience at their national convention, Mr. Price suggested that voucher programs are a viable alternative to public schools. (Riley, Jason L., "The Quota Culture's Slow Demise," The Wall Street Journal, August 13, 1997.) Mr. Price's remarks only slightly preceded the release of a Phi Delta Kappa/Gallup poll showing that 64% of black Americans support taxpayer support for children to attend any school, including religious institutions ("Popular Support for Parental Choice Grows," Ed Facts, Family Research Council, August 29, 1997).
Recently retired Representative Floyd H. Flake, a black, Democratic congressman from New York, has been one of the first to recognize the demands of his constituents on this issue and has led the charge to try to get vouchers for low-income families approved by Congress. ("Federal File," Education Week, November 19, 1997.)
Columnist Donald Lambro warns, "Growing support for school choice plans in the black community is being matched by growing support among Democrats in Congress. Other Democrat members of Congress who have also supported tuition vouchers for the poor (although that doesn't guarantee they will support all vouchers) include New Jersey Senator Bob Torricelli, Connecticut Senator Joe Lieberman, Louisiana Senators Mary Landrieu and John Breaux, and Delaware Senator Joe Biden. (Lambro, Donald, "School choice's time is coming soon," Orange County Register, November 3, 1997.)
Around the country, other Democrats are following suit. In Texas, Democratic Lieutenant Governor, Bob Bullock agreed to serve as honorary chairman of "...that state's leading pro-voucher group, Putting Children First." Pennsylvania Representative, Dwight Evans, another Democrat, "sponsored a bill to give students in Philadelphia's low-performing schools publicly funded $5,500 scholarships to attend private schools. A seventeen-member Pennsylvania panel--the Legislative Commission on Restructuring Pennsylvania's Urban Schools--had among its members both Republicans and Democrats, two university presidents, six lawmakers, and representatives of business, teachers, and school administrators. The panel included among it recommendations, the provision of tuition vouchers for poor children. The recommendations are intended to be used as the basis for legislation in the next few months. (Hendrie, Caroline, "Panel Proposes Breaking up Phila. District," Education Week, January 14, 1998.)
Yet another Democrat, Anita Nelam is organizing a state education summit to kick off a ballot drive to amend the Michigan state constitution to allow public money to go to private schools. (Johnston, Robert C., "School Choice Picks Up New Allies in States," Education Week, December 10, 1997.)
Some might think Democratic support of vouchers a good thing. Doesn't it help the cause if more people support vouchers? Well, it depends on what you want to accomplish with vouchers. If the goal is to make it possible for some children to move from horrible schools to better schools, then vouchers might accomplish that goal temporarily. If the goal is to provide free market competition among schools and a better education for all, then vouchers are not the solution, no matter who backs them. Vouchers will introduce into private schools some of the very problems we find in government schools.
The difference between a short-term fix for a few children and long-term educational improvement for all becomes clear when we look briefly at the history of vouchers. Proposition 174 in California was one of the first major efforts. This was a "fire wall" voucher that was supposed to protect private schools that took vouchers from any additional government intrusion. Most people failed to recognize the intrusion built into the voucher itself with its requirement that schools "...establish academic accountability based on national standards." They also ignored the fact that the State Board of Education would be given the authority to "...require each... scholarship-redeeming school to choose and administer tests reflecting national standards...." (quoted from Proposition 174).
That initiative failed, and exit polls revealed that the major reason was the "fire wall." Most people wanted more government control of private schools that accepted vouchers than was presently in place. One of the ploys used by voucher opponents in that campaign was the accurate observation that vouchers might be used to attend schools run by witches. Ever since Prop 174 went down to defeat, the results of that poll have been taken into account with succeeding attempts. Thus we have seen restrictions against voucher use for religious schools and an increasing willingness to allow government intrusion and control of private schools that receive vouchers.
Many conservatives and liberals might think this a small price to pay to "rescue" children from some of the worst schools, especially in inner cities. But they ignore the consequences of government intervention in private schools. Those at the local level of government-run schooling know about the unintended ill effects of outside interference from Sacramento or Albany or wherever the state capital happens to be located, or, in more recent years, all the mandates from the Feds out of Washington D.C. Having to accommodate all of the edu-fads and regulations from higher up consumes a huge amount of instructional time. Private schools have much greater control over their time and how it is used so that students spend more time on real learning tasks. It's no surprise they can do a better job. Start saddling private schools with the same sort of oversight your local public school endures and it won't take long for their results to follow the same academic nosedive and end up equally non-productive.
Watching the battle over vouchers for D.C. children last year demonstrated just how much private school autonomy congress was willing to sacrifice for the sake of vouchers. The voucher-receiving schools would not be able to require students to attend religion classes or services. Thus, a Catholic school, whose mission includes training children in the Catholic faith, would be denied the ability to accomplish one of its primary missions. If they cannot teach children that the reason for truthfulness relates to pleasing God, they have undermined both their mission and their effectiveness as they lose their religious "lever of motivation." How long do you think any religious school will continue to maintain high academic standards once deprived of the ability to teach religion and require students to at least act like they believe it?
Those who are not religious or those who believe that religion and education can and should be kept separate probably see no problem here. Many liberals will fall into these two camps. They would be happy to see private schools focusing on "religion-free" academics that at least enable some children access to a better academic education. On the other hand, many conservatives are religious and are not eager to see religious schools denuded of their faith-based missions. Can you envision the clash as conservatives and liberals try to construct a voucher pleasing to both sides?
I predict that the liberals will win this one. Conservatives have put so much effort into popularizing the idea of vouchers that they will be reluctant to abandon their flagship. I expect that, like Congress, they will be willing to compromise a great deal rather than abandon an issue that has become a standard bearer for the conservative cause. Issues on which conservatives will probably cave in include demonstrations of faith, attendance or participation in religious practices or religious classes, inclusion of religion across the curriculum, testing requirements, and admission and expulsion policies. Typical of the rationalization that is already taking place is World magazine publisher Joel Belz's statement: "In time of war, it is sometimes necessary to concede an otherwise sound position to gain a larger strategic advantage. Such a time has come in the funding of education. Yes, it would normally be unwise to let the state gain any leverage at all in private-school efforts. But if it helps bring down the statist system, which it will, it will be worth the temporary compromise--and the short-term risks" (Belz, Joel, "Trustbusters," World, January 17, 1998).
It is probably important to take a quick sidestep to address Belz's confidence in the downfall of the "statist system." I see no reason to place any confidence in vouchers to bring down the system. I have to assume that a major part of that system to be brought down is the teacher unions, since this has been a central goal from early on. The logic behind this assumption is that voucher receiving schools will not be controlled by teachers unions. Vouchers will shift a huge percentage of students from government-run to privately-run schools, shifting thousands of teachers and their dues out from under the thumb of the NEA and its minions. However, the number of people who will actually move their children to private schools remains unknown; many people will select a school based on its proximity to home more than any other factor. Also, there is no guarantee that teachers in private schools will not join a union or form their own. Given the historically low wages for teachers in private education, faced with the influx of voucher dollars, there is bound to be tremendous pressure for teachers to get "their fair share." Yet another factor that makes "breaking the back of the union" debatable is the affiliation and probable eventual merger of the two largest teacher unions, the NEA with 2.3 million members and the AFT with 950,000 members. (Archer, Jeff, "NEA Leaders Agree in Concept To Affiliate With AFL-CIO," Education Week, January 14, 1997.) As the two unions move closer together, the coordination of their efforts will offset any reduction in the ranks brought about by vouchers.
Liberals, pushed by an immense black and minority lobby focused on academic opportunity rather than private school autonomy will hold the trump card. It will be very difficult for conservatives to change position now based on their dawning realization of the potential harm to private schools. Minority groups might well accuse conservatives of suddenly opposing vouchers for racist reasons rather than to protect the educational integrity of private schools. They might try to paint private schools as bastions of racism and white segregation. Conservatives might well be trapped into either an embarrassing denunciation of vouchers or accepting those with restrictions required by the liberals.
The crucial issue that needs to be debated is private school autonomy. Private schools have long provided an absolutely essential option with their ability to provide a faith-based education that supports a theistic worldview. Those of us who see such an education as the only true education should not be willing to sacrifice such schools in this political shell game. Voucher proponents insist that private schools can drop out of the program if the regulation gets too intrusive. However, the reality is that if two private schools serve the same geographic area and offer an education that appeals to the same audience, if only one of those schools chooses to accept vouchers, the other is likely to go out of business. Very few parents will support the principle-based stand against taking government money by paying to send their children to the voucher-resistant school.
As for "dropping out," I think it unlikely that most private schools would find themselves able to do so. The reality is that once they started receiving voucher money, they would increase teacher salaries (widely recognized as inadequate at most private schools) and expand their facilities to accommodate their larger student population. They might well build that gym they've always wanted. Once contracts have been negotiated, loans have been obtained, and students are enrolled, it's nigh impossible to go back to where they were. Consequently, as new regulations are imposed, private schools might well find themselves coerced by circumstances into a loss of freedom they never envisioned.
As far as the academics, private schools are likely to do a better job for some years. However, as regulations demand inclusion of politically-correct classes, and as class time has to be allocated to prep students for tests aligned with the national goals, even the academics will suffer. In the long run, private schools receiving vouchers are likely to become clones of their government-run counterparts. Essentially what will happen is that the school system will shift from being socialist (government owned and operated) to fascist (privately-owned, but government-controlled) with the same end result: schools will exist to please and serve the government rather than families and students.
For evidence of what is likely to happen, we can look to a number of European countries where government funding of private schools has been in place for many years. Charles L Glenn's study, published by the U.S. Department of Education under the title Choice of Schools in Six Nations, describes how homogenous education becomes when the government picks up the tab. Illustrative is his description of the situation in France: "How much real choice exists in French education? Twenty years ago Didier Piveteau lamented that 'because of the close relationship created in 1958 between Catholic and government schools, it may be said that, apart from religion, the curriculum of the Catholic school has no distinctive features.'" He goes on to say that "By 1981, Socialist Minister of Education Alain Savary pointed out, 14 percent of the Catholic schools provided no religious instruction at all and 24 percent of them regarded school climate alone as the essence of their religious instruction." (p. 42)
Shifting to Great Britain, Glenn tells us, "Despite this extensive accommodation of confessional diversity within publicly funded education, parents still may not enjoy sharply profiled choices among schools. The effect of supervision by local education authorities has led to a great deal of uniformity between council and voluntary schools, while secularization has weakened the confessional identity of many of the latter. 'Denominational bodies, though they have won the right to receive considerable public aid whilst retaining the power to appoint teachers of a particular faith, now in practice often consider themselves fortunate to obtain a teacher or lecturer of any religion or of none." (Glenn, p. 115, quoting James Murphy, Church, State, and Schools in Britain, 1800-1970, London 1971.)
Both logic and the history of government-funding of private schools in other countries demonstrate the likely results of adopting taxpayer-funded voucher systems. Conservatives need to reverse course before its too late. Vouchers are a Faustian bargain with an enormous, hidden price tag.