SCHOOL VOUCHERS- New public Money For Big Business

By: Dan Shepherd

  As in any war, language is an early casualty. To soften their image, vouchers are sometimes called "choice" programs and confused with public school choice and charter programs that do not privatize education rights or funding. I am talking about tuition vouchers that allow public money to fund private and parochial school enrollment, a proposition raised in over 30 states since 1993.

     We can defend what works already, but not pretend that there is nothing wrong. There are real places in school crisis: twenty-five or so major urban systems, plus some hundreds of decaying industrial suburbs and dying rural districts. It is no accident that voucher warriors, having failed to win sweeping federal and statewide programs, are now targeting the most distressed urban districts for pilot programs (and back-door entry points for larger plans).

     We can also defend schools that are changing, including some exemplary restructured public schools in those urban districts, schools that have traded in the factory model for child-centered learning. We can point to the growing number of successful Comer Schools, Key Schools, Accelerated Schools, Essential Schools, Carnegie Pilots, New Visions Schools, and scores more to prove that public schools can work even in adverse conditions. Then we can point out that these shining stars only make it more feasible and imperative to extend restructuring efforts to every school.

     Most fundamentally, we can defend the universal right to public education and defend our future chances to transform the institution. What we cannot defend are schools that have failed or given up.

Voucher battles are demanding and expensive because they are an all-out assault on the integrity of public education. We cannot afford to lose in any state, without losing equity mandates, economies of scale, and community investments that have taken decades to achieve. Whether wholesale or piecemeal, privatization would fracture the coherence of the public system and particularly its obligatory, if often grudging, commitments to the neediest students. So the stakes are very high.

     Here's a sobering example: the fight against Prop. 174, the 1993 voucher initiative in California, cost the California Teachers Association roughly $16 million in campaign expenses; millions more were spent by allies, which included the PTA, League of Women Voters, the AARP, civil rights organizations, labor unions, business leaders, social service providers, and more. The proposition was defeated by a 70%-30% margin, a resounding victory. The problem is that voucher proponents are vowing to come back with another voucher referendum in California, just as they are continuously submitting voucher legislation and amendments in other states.

     The Right has been putting forward vouchers for decades, but with real vengeance since the Reagan years. To privatize public education is the centerpiece, the grand prize of their overall agenda to dismantle social entitlements and government responsibility for social needs. Vouchers also serve a political function for the Right, whether they win or lose. Vouchers unify the different strands of the Right: business entrepreneurs looking for a new public carcass to feed on, having used up the Cold War; anti-government libertarians who worship the free market, having noticed that education is the society's largest public institution; social and religious conservatives who want to break down the separation of church and state, while garnering public funds to run their own schools. Many issues divide the Right; vouchers unite them and provide an organizing platform.