Betting with Jay Mathews on vouchers

There are many things we value in public education today that were once unthinkable. Southern school boards defiantly resisted integration. Charter schools were anathema to the Democratic Party. Even International Baccalaureate programs were challenged by well-meaning principals who feared they would cream the best students and dilute traditional public schools.

All of that has changed. But Washington Post columnist Jay Mathews today points to one educational policy that remains politically challenged: school vouchers. He is, of course, correct. Vouchers and tax credit scholarships have enjoyed only modest growth in popularity in some sectors, and have typically taken a pounding at the ballot box. This, for Mathews, is reason enough to abandon hope for any private learning option in public education, even though he admits there’s nothing wrong prima facie with vouchers. He writes:

I have never thought that they drained public schools of vital resources. I think a low-income family that gets the chance to choose a private school that suits their child should do so. But I think such programs have limited growth potential because there are never going to be nearly enough empty spaces in private schools to help all the students who need them.

Mathews says he was impressed by a report from Greg Forster of the Foundation for Educational Choice that highlights the positive effect of vouchers not only on participating students but on public schools as well. But Mathews counters by comparing two numbers — the 1.5 million students who attend charter schools and the 190,000 students who attend private schools on public subsidies. Based on that momentum, he says, charters are the better bet.

But education politics are not immutable. Just last month Mathews noted that Congress had to browbeat a reluctant school board in Washington, D.C., 15 years ago to accept charter schools. Today, charters don’t elicit the fear in the education world the way they did 15 years ago. In fact, the International Baccalaureate program Mathews values so highly in his ranking of the nation’s best public schools was once spurned by educators in traditional schools who feared the loss of their highest-achieving students and the decay of their own advanced-course offerings. Today, no one seriously questions the positive influence of the IB program on school districts. Traditional schools adapted, and strengthened.

Similarly, the “public” versus “private” debate has become much less relevant today than 15 years ago. In just more than two years, Arne Duncan has led a nation toward a systemic change in the way we deliver a public education, notably in his embrace of charter schools and public-private community partnerships. That has led to labor pains with his school district constituencies, and in resolving those conflicts, he has dismissed the viability of private learning options. But what are charter schools but public schools managed by private companies, led by private boards and staffed by private employees. In a perverse way, that cognitive dissonance is progress. No education secretary serving a Democratic White House in 1996 would have championed charters with such boldness for the way they empower poor families. 

Critics may counter that vouchers have had more than 20 years since the birth of the Milwaukee Parental Choice Program to gain support. Despite the success of tax credit scholarships and vouchers in Florida and Milwaukee, no state has been able to convince voters to pass a constitutional referendum that would establish publicly funded options for private and parochial schools. But that doesn’t account for the states that have tried to tailor these programs as options for poor and struggling students, the very kind of program Mathews addressed. It doesn’t account for Florida experiencing annual double-digit percentage growth in demand for the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship, which is means-tested and now serves 33,000 low-income children in the Sunshine State. It also doesn’t account for the Democratic support for private options in Florida or for the unprecedented Democratic sponsorship of means-tested voucher and tax credit measures in Pennsylvania, Virginia and New Jersey. What Democrat would have sponsored a voucher bill even five years ago?

Congress may remain divided over the D.C. Opportunity Scholarship and Indiana Democrats may be boycotting their Legislature to protest a voucher proposal there, but the stories in Florida and in the Mid-Atlantic should give Mathews pause before dismissing the political prospects for private options. In 2001, the lone Florida Democrat who voted with Republicans to establish the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship surely wouldn’t have guessed that half of his caucus would follow him in less than 10 years. Systems change incrementally. Mathews well knows that. Maybe 15 years hence, he’ll see these options as the sure bet.

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BY Adam Emerson

Editor of redefinED, policy and communications guru for Florida education nonprofit