Commentary

Vouching for Bush

By Darcy Ann Olsen
This article appeared in the National Review Online on January 25, 2001.

From all the media hullabaloo, you’d think the Bush administration’s new education package was about nothing but school vouchers. Nearly every education headline and network news story has lead with the voucher provision. Forget the national testing, new reading initiative, and increased spending on a spate of existing programs. As far as the press is concerned, this debate is about vouchers. They have even run stories on the word “vouchers” and whether administration officials dare utter the “v” word.

It’s almost amusing. The voucher component of Bush’s education plan comprises perhaps 15 percent of the bill’s estimated $48 billion price tag, yet it’s the only provision getting any play. Congress spends $7 billion every two days, so it can’t be cost causing the stir.

Could it be that big changes are around the corner, with a flood of students leaving public schools? Not at all. Only schools that fail federal tests three years running would see their students given vouchers.

Could it be the number of students affected? Hardly. The track record of either the states or the federal government actually declaring a school failed and then holding it accountable indicates that relatively few students will ever see a school voucher.

Could it be the size of the voucher? Not likely. Students in failing schools would be given just a portion of the federal money earmarked for struggling schools to pay tuition at another school.

In other words, the vouchers would be available 1) only after a three-year wait — giving schools plenty of time to teach students to be better test takers; 2) for only a handful of students in select schools (hardly a revolution); and 3) in an amount of an estimated $1,500, which would pay just one-third tuition even at most subsidized parochial schools.

So why are the teachers unions and their congressional lackeys having such a conniption? What’s the big deal? It’s that the education establishment, for all its power, money, and influence, lives in a house of cards. And parental school choice, no matter how limited, how small in value, threatens to bring that house right down on them.

The teachers unions face the ultimate slippery slope: Once a few students see the benefits of parental school choice — and they will see the benefits, as experience in Milwaukee, Cleveland, and countless other private scholarship programs have shown — then pressure will mount for all kids in failing schools to get vouchers. And when middle-class parents see urban children attending private and parochial schools that are often better than even well-funded suburban schools, then the gig is really up. The teacher’s unions’ worst-case-scenario — children receiving quality educations at schools their parents freely chose for them — would become the grim reality. Sen. Edward Kennedy (D., Mass) summed up the critics’ opposition this way, “I don’t think we ought to abandon the schools by taking money away…” Implicit in that argument is that given half a chance parents will dump the public schools like a hot potato. And guess what-they’re right. A CNN/USA Today/Gallup poll earlier this month found 60 percent of Americans say the public-school system is doing a poor or “only fair” job of educating young people, and 54 percent of parents say they would prefer to send their child to a private school.

And who can blame them? Not Congress, 40 to 50 percent of whom send their children to private schools. Not public-school teachers in cities such as San Francisco, Seattle, Philadelphia, Baltimore, Chicago, and Detroit where more than 30 percent send their kids to private schools. (Incidentally, would you eat in a restaurant in which the restaurant’s owner refused to eat?) The people who know the system best want no part of it.

It’s expected that congressional Democrats will fight to either strip vouchers out of Bush’s legislation or render voucher provisions so toothless that they might as well not be there at all. Many commentators suggest that even the Bush camp has secretly given up on vouchers. The good news is that despite all the fervor on Capital Hill, 95 percent of education funds are spent at the state and local level. Regardless of what happens in D.C., every state legislature is free to implement policies, such as universal education tax credits that return education dollars, education choice, and education power back to parents.

President Bush has the right idea: Accountability in education has been absent far too long. But a tiny, federal voucher program can do little to bring real accountability to a system that desperately needs it. The real merit of the Bush plan isn’t the plan itself, but that it has launched a national debate about parental control in education. Let state and local legislators take it from here.

Darcy Olsen is director of education and child policy.