School vouchers never really went away, but this year they are definitely back in fashion. Several states, including Florida, Indiana, New Jersey and Pennsylvania, appear poised to approve ambitious voucher proposals.
Unlike other conservative education “reform” ideas -- notably charter schools -- vouchers have long encountered a wall of political resistance. Critics complain that, by sending dollars along with students outside of public school districts, they drain resources needed for improvement.
As a result, vouchers have been excluded from major federal education initiatives of the past decade -- the No Child Left Behind Act and the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act’s Race to the Top fund.
But circumstances have suddenly changed. For one thing, charter schools and other changes have undermined the 1990s mantra that maintaining or increasing funding for traditional public schools was the surest path to success. The political landscape is also more favorable, given the GOP’s massive gains at the state level last November.
“It was really a nonexistent issue for the last eight years,” says Ron Cowell, a former Pennsylvania legislator who now runs the Education Policy and Leadership Center, a Harrisburg-based nonprofit organization. “But a candidate who talked about vouchers very explicitly in his campaign” -- Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Corbett -- “is now in a position to do something about it.”
And because the amount of money provided for each student in the form of vouchers is generally lower than per-pupil costs in public education, vouchers are now touted as a way to save money. “There is no doubt that the fiscal crisis in the states has helped propel this issue back into the limelight,” says Robert Enlow, president of the Foundation for Educational Choice in Indianapolis.
Because voucher programs offer funding but no guarantee of admission to private or parochial schools, critics -- including teachers unions and school boards -- say they amount to a taxpayer-funded giveaway, since most recipients would be sending their kids to such schools anyway. Perhaps for that reason, the current crop of voucher proposals in most states will limit participation to low-income residents.
That dynamic has helped increase support for the idea from black and Latino legislators, who traditionally have been more open than most other Democrats to vouchers that might help their constituents. “The frustrations of some African-American and Latino leaders in urban communities have provided Democratic votes and very effective spokespeople,” says Rick Hess, resident scholar and director of education policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute, a conservative Washington, D.C.-based think tank.
Despite such favorable conditions, voucher proponents recognize they continue to face formidable opposition. But they believe the changing politics of education -- and the desire to challenge disappointing public schools -- will lend them the momentum they need. “The barrage of criticism launched at schools by the documentary Waiting for Superman and similar efforts have made the status quo a little less palatable,” Hess says. “Consequently, voucher proposals seem a little less scary.”