School Vouchers And Other Forms Of Choice
School vouchers is an idea I’ve supported ever since I first read Capitalism and Freedom in 1989. It’s an idea so simple, and sound, that it’s a wonder it hasn’t been embraced. Yet here we are, forty-six years after CaF was published and choice hasn’t caught on (except when dismembering a fetus) and is even reviled by most of the American public (I can’t find the source, but a few days ago I read that close to 60% are against vouchers, no doubt reflecting teachers’ unions’ well-funded opposition).
In fact, people in Washington D.C., like House Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton are trying to strangle a pilot program in its crib:
On Tuesday, a House Appropriations subcommittee is set to take up provisions in President Bush’s budget for $18 million to continue the five-year-old D.C. Opportunity Scholarship Program for next year. It is part of an unprecedented $74 million earmarked for education in the District. In April, Mr. Fenty and D.C. Council Chairman Vincent C. Gray appeared before the House subcommittee on financial services and general government to speak in support of the initiative, which gives low-income students scholarships to attend private schools. Ms. Norton is not a member of that subcommittee, but she made a special appearance to attack the program.
Even worse, as The Post’s Valerie Strauss and Bill Turque reported Monday, it now turns out that Ms. Norton is preparing a plan that could end the program after just one more year. Ms. Norton won’t discuss her plan, and she would, rather disingenuously, have the public believe that she is acting only to ensure an orderly transition of students from a program doomed because of the opposition of others in her party. But, at best, by refusing to support the mayor, she is helping to doom a program that gives poor parents an opportunity that others in this country take for granted: the chance to choose a decent school for their children.
For parents such as Patricia William, that means the probable loss of an educational opportunity that has transformed her 11-year-old son. Ms. William is not alone in her praise of the program and in her panic about the possibility of its demise. The voucher pilot is intended to measure and compare children’s progress in private schools over a span of several years. But one result already is known: Poor parents do not want their children automatically consigned to failing schools any more than middle-class parents would. Talk to parents and grandparents of children afforded what should not be the luxury of choice and you’ll hear stories of thanks and success — stories of young women such as Tiffany Dunston, this year’s valedictorian at Archbishop Carroll High School. Ms. Norton turned a deaf ear to these accounts during a recent meeting, dismissing the scholarship families as “befuddled.” Catherine Hill, whose grandson graduated from the Academy for Ideal Education, told us that the only thing the group doesn’t understand is why Ms. Norton “hates a program that works so well.” (Her response to this editorial is here.)
The depth of the opposition to school choice has convinced me that a new approach is needed, though my proposal is a long shot at best. It is modeled on welfare reform and would involve breaking up the Department of Education and releasing the money to the states as performance-based block grants.
For instance, the almost $60 billion dollars in discretionary spending that was used to fund the DoEd this year could be allocated among the states and each individual block grant could be broken into thirds: one-third for construction of schools, purchase of books and computers; one-third for augmenting teacher pay; and, one-third for performance improvements. The data collection functions of the DoEd could be moved to Health and Human Services, along with administration of the block grants.
Whatever happens, something different needs to be done. Inflation-adjusted, per-pupil spending on education has more than tripled since the mid-1960s and we have very little to show for it. Time to try something new.