In Praise of Vouchers

Liberals may be surprised to discover that there's a history of progressives who have supported the notion of school vouchers, too. Bipartisan effort is needed

When it comes to addressing America's social and economic ills, the reform mantra chanted by everyone from economists to chief executives to governors is "Fix K-12 Education." American employers value an educated workforce in an economy where ideas and skills matter more than brawn and endurance. The worldwide competition for markets and profits is intensifying.

Yet by many measures—from international test comparisons to the black/white achievement gap—America's K-12 educators aren't doing enough to prepare youngsters for the new world of brain work. Worse, the education system is completely failing a core of minority inner-city kids. The bankruptcy of the Education Establishment in the nation's inner cities has an enormous social impact.

Over the past two decades, the majority of school reformers have decided that what's needed to improve the public school system is more choice and competition—especially in poor neighborhoods. That's why most states allow charter schools. Some cities have turned over public money to private operators, like the Edison Schools.

Nobel Laureate's Legacy

Such initiatives are resisted by the Education Establishment and its allies—liberal lobbying groups, political progressives, and the like. And the most vehement and vituperative opposition is reserved for voucher school-choice programs, which give parents taxpayer money to send their kids to private schools, including religious ones. Opponents charge that the voucher movement is an assault on public education by free-market right-wing zealots.

Too bad. There is a strong progressive case to be made that vouchers offer disadvantaged children their best chance for getting a decent education. But conservative advocates for vouchers also need to realize that a well-constructed program will cost big bucks. If conservatives are serious about equality of opportunity for all rather than stacking the game for the benefit of the few, then vouchers must become an extremely well-funded crusade. And if liberals are earnest about attacking inequality, they should realize that society's compelling interest in education and the interests of the Education Establishment aren't synonymous.

The current voucher movement traces its intellectual heritage to the Nobel laureate Milton Friedman, the recently deceased University of Chicago economist (see, 11/17/06, "Milton Friedman: Death of a Giant"). Friedman was not only a brilliant theoretical economist, but he also brimmed with public-policy ideas laced with laissez-faire enthusiasm. In 1955, he wrote an essay promoting the idea of a universal education voucher for primary school students. (You can read Professor Friedman's article "The Role of Government in Education" at It's worth quoting him at length.

Progressive Roots, Too

"Let the subsidy be made available to parents regardless where they send their children—provided only that it be to schools that satisfy specified minimum standards—and a wide variety of schools will spring up to meet the demand. Parents could express their views about schools directly, by withdrawing their children from one school and sending them to another, to a much greater extent than is now possible. In general, they can now take this step only by simultaneously changing their place of residence. For the rest, they can express their views only through cumbrous political channels.…Here, as in other fields, competitive private enterprise is likely to be far more efficient in meeting consumer demands than either nationalized enterprises or enterprises run to serve other purposes."

Friedman's proposal—albeit with one major difference—eventually gathered momentum among conservative think tanks and right-wing politicians. He wanted every family to receive vouchers.

Most current voucher programs target specific groups, particularly poor families. For instance, the best-known voucher plan is the Milwaukee program, open since 1990 to low-income households. Still, court challenges and bitter legislative fights have largely hindered the spread of vouchers.

Yet, in much of the controversy surrounding vouchers, a strong progressive narrative has been largely forgotten. It has been illuminated in a fascinating scholarly paper by Georgetown University law professor James Forman Jr., son of the famed civil-rights leader. In "The Secret History of School Choice: How Progressives Got There First," Forman argues that school choice has deep roots in the civil-rights movement and black nationalism.

Common Goal: Better Schools

He traces that theme back to the schools created by freed slaves for themselves and their children; then to the schools set up during the Mississippi Freedom Summer of 1964; the Northern free schools of the late 1960s and 1970s; the community control movement of the late 1960s; and school vouchers designed by leading progressive educators during the Johnson Administration. Much of this history was in opposition to the Education Establishment. (Click here to read the paper.)

The most intriguing part of the paper deals with the vouchers designed during the Johnson Administration. As now, there was widespread dismay at how inner-city public schools failed to teach most black children "to read and write or to add and subtract competently," as pioneering liberal sociologist Christopher Jencks wrote in a New York Times Magazine article in 1968. "This is not the children's fault," he added. That same year, progressive educators Ted Sizer and Phillip Whitten railed that a "system of public schools which destroys rather than develops human potential now exists.…It does not deserve to survive."

These progressive thinkers may have had little if anything in common with Friedman's economics, but like him they wanted to improve educational equity. And they came to the same solution: vouchers. Jencks and colleagues designed a voucher system that included both public and private schools. The basic value of the voucher was around $7,000 (in today's dollars), but for the poorest families that sum doubled to some $14,000. That compares to the current $6,500 Milwaukee voucher and the $2,250 for the one offered in Cleveland.

Joint Opportunity

Politics killed off progressive vouchers. There was a brief-lived experiment with a modified version of the Jencks plan in a town in California, but it was eliminated early in the Nixon Administration. The program never gathered a committed liberal constituency, and conservatives were always stingier with money.

That dynamic could change, however. Today, there are well-organized conservative backers of vouchers that have achieved limited success. And there are plenty of liberals dismayed at the state of education in inner cities. Perhaps a coalition is possible, taking parallel routes to the same destination, with conservatives backing vouchers and liberals backing higher spending limits. Writes James Forman: "Because progressives have by and large focused on the evils of vouchers, insufficient thought has gone into whether a modern-day progressive vision of vouchers is possible. Instead of asking whether vouchers are good or bad, progressives might do well to consider that vouchers are neither and both—it all depends on how the plan is constructed."

Competition may be anathema to many local school boards and statewide teachers' unions. But business is fed up with the failings of America's elementary and secondary public school system. So are parents, especially in the nation's inner cities. It's time to give vouchers a bipartisan chance.

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