School vouchers for the poor? Or for all?

When Indiana’s celebrated state superintendent of instruction, Tony Bennett, spoke in support of universal vouchers at last week’s American Federation For Children summit, the panel’s moderator did not sit quietly. After all, just last year, Howard Fuller (pictured here) fought legislative attempts to include high-income families in a Milwaukee voucher program he helped create for poor children. Of the prospect of universal vouchers in Wisconsin, Fuller proclaimed, “That’s when I get off the train.”

So Fuller, a legend in the school choice movement, politely invoked “the moderator’s privilege” after Bennett spoke. And he was characteristically blunt.

“The thing that I most worry about is that people will forget the importance of protecting poor people in this,” Fuller said, before adding a few sentences later, “I just want people to know … when folks move towards universal (vouchers), just know that some of us are going to fight it.”

The world of school choice is more textured and dynamic than it’s portrayed. It’s not a monolith. It’s many camps, with overlapping but not always consistent visions. For the most part, those differences were glossed over at the AFC summit, and for good reason. The summit was a fitting celebration of recent victories. It was rightly punctuated by moving speeches from New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal and Newark Mayor Cory Booker.

But the differences are there. And beneath the surface, some tensions too. Fuller has drawn a line in the sand before, including in this podcast interview last year with former redefinED editor Adam Emerson. Here are his latest remarks in full, as best as I could hear and transcribe them:

The thing that I most worry about is that people will forget the importance of protecting poor people in this. Because one thing I found about movements, and particularly as we begin to talk about we got to protect the middle class – all of which I’m not opposed to – what I learned over time is that there’s not some group of people, and I hope BAEO is going to at least be that group, that consistently and unapologetically says we’re in this to protect the interests of a lot of the poorest people.

Because I found that if that doesn’t happen, that somehow their interests will be put aside. And we get all kinds of reasons why and this and that. So I just want people to know … when folks move towards universal, just know that some of us are going to fight it. And we’re going to fight it because our history has taught us what happens when you establish a program that’s allegedly for poor people and then all of a sudden we all got to get in it and this and that and all lifeboats get lifted and this and that. I have found that all the life boats don’t get lifted.

And so I just want everybody to be clear that there’s some of us in this room that will never give up on the notion of standing for the poorest people in our society. And we will not let people just lightly go on as if America has proven that it cares deeply about the poorest people. Because to me the opposite is true.

That’s the thing that worries me about this movement and it’s something people don’t always like to hear. Why is he saying that? I’m saying it because I just want people to be clear where we are. And why we are where we are. Because every day, I see our poorest children dealing with issues that most of us will never even contemplate, let alone live.

And when I see these arguments that Diane Ravitch – Diane Ravitch and I were on a Twitter war for about an hour the other, a few weeks ago. And the issue was, we were making this comment about poverty should not be an excuse for not educating our kids. And her thing back to me was, poverty has a huge impact on children’s lives. My thing was, when did y’all figure that out? Is this like some breaking news or something? No seriously. My mama and grandmama knew that. I mean, we all know that. The issue is not allowing that to be an excuse not to educate our children. Only a fool would say that poverty has no impact on what happens to these families.

And the lesson for a lot of us elected officials and stuff in this movement … you can’t vote against the minimum wage, you can’t vote against health care, you can’t vote against housing, you can’t vote against every single thing that helps the children’s families and then say, ‘But I support vouchers so I’m with you.’ It doesn’t work like that. Because at the end of the day, all of these things affect our children, and their families, and it impacts on their ability to come to school in a capacity to even be able to learn.

So we got to see all of these things as being tied together. And if we don’t, then you’re going to continue to get pushback … Some of us in this fight, for whatever push back we get, some of us in this fight – and I’m going to be one of them – have got to keep raising that issue day after day after day after day.

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BY Ron Matus

Ron Matus is director for policy and public affairs at Step Up for Students and a former editor of redefinED. He joined Step Up in February 2012 after 20 years in journalism, including eight years as an education reporter with the Tampa Bay Times (formerly the St. Petersburg Times). Ron can be reached at or (727) 451-9830. Follow him on Twitter @RonMatus1 and on facebook at


You often hear the saying, “A program for the poor is a poor program.” This is based on the notion that a program aimed only at poor people never gets all that much political support from the broader middle class, and so it remains poorly funded.

In this post, Howard Fuller seems to have the exact opposite view — that broadening a program will somehow make it worse for poor people.

Why would that be the case?

Matthew Ladner


Howard is right to be concerned about the interests of the poor, but means-testing is hardly the only or even the best way to secure those interests.

If you start with a clear eyed view of the public school system, you see a system that systematically distributes more money per pupil and (more importantly) better teachers to wealthier kids. The same largely goes for the private system, amended only by private charity. The poorer you are the less likely you will be to have access to effective schools.

Supporters of means tested vouchers believe in providing scholarship aid to poor children to help level the playing field. I support this as well, but it hasn’t made much progress as a strategy. All taxpayers are paying for voucher programs, and once you get past the pilot stage, it will seem increasingly odd to them that they should be asked to pay into a program from which they cannot benefit.

A schooling system that gives choice to the poor but confines the middle and high income parents to an antiquated district system of schooling isn’t just unsustainable, it doesn’t make sense. The same logic that leads one to oppose universal vouchers would lead one to propose means testing charter schools and closing suburban districts.

I understand that Howard doesn’t want the interests of the poor to get lost in a system of choice. We have a public school system that gives the most to the kids who start with the most. I think Howard’s goals would be better served by fighting for a system of choice that gives the most to the kids who start with the least- a graduated scale that provides larger levels of public subsidy for economically disadvantaged children.

Ron Matus

Hi Matthew,
I wish I could get you and Howard Fuller on a panel together to go at this. As you know, I’ve been immersed in the world of school choice for two months. I’m not the best person to single-handedly defend means-tested vouchers against anyone like yourself, who has been thinking deeply and thoughtfully about choice for many years. (I wish Howard Fuller would respond. Maybe he’s not a regular reader of redefinED yet.) Frankly, I think you make a lot of good points that I can’t stop thinking about. But I also can’t stop thinking about the very real fears expressed not only by Howard Fuller at the AFC conference, but by other thoughtful choice supporters I know a little better and have long respected. People like T. Willard Fair, the former chairman of the Florida Board of Education, and Lincoln Tamayo, the highly regarded head of the Academy Prep private schools in Tampa Bay. The latter haven’t been as outspoken as Fuller, but I remember as a reporter being struck by how much they balked at the idea of education savings accounts when Gov. Scott brought it to the surface in Florida 18 months ago. In my new gig, I see means-tested vouchers and tax credit scholarships, though imperfect and still evolving, helping a lot of low-income kids. The amount of the scholarship isn’t near as high as I wish it was, but Florida families are lining up for it in droves – and the evidence to date suggests they have good reason for doing so. As a taxpayer whose kids attend high-performing public schools, I and the community I live in benefit from their success. Perhaps we would benefit even more if we transitioned to a system like you describe. Perhaps if more of us could better see the path from here to there, and were confident that that path could lead to even more success, more of us would be all in.

Matthew Ladner


I can’t say that I am anxious to face off with Howard at all! I have tremendous respect for Dr. Fuller and moreover I serve on the board of a scholarship group that uses a FRL means test and have been involved in supporting a number of choice programs that employ a means test. In the context of very limited funds, it makes sense to me to focus them on the children with the least amount of choice, so I make for a bit of an odd duck as a champion of universal choice.

Nevertheless, I cannot for the life of me see why if the children of Bill Gates are eligible for a $13,000 public school education in Milwaukee why we should view it as scandal if they were to receive a $6,400 voucher instead. Some might argue that perhaps the children of Bill Gates ought not to be eligible for a public school education, but I don’t see why. Bill Gates after all has paid far more in the way of public school taxes than I ever will, both directly and indirectly by creating jobs and companies that also pay taxes.

MS from Florida

We are not rich and belong to non-performing public school (0 performing on maps of schools) and had to look for options. We are quite sad to see that we have to pay full admission and except of one student, we are the only family paying toition in private school which used to have excellent reputation. We find this very unfair, especially because we pay high property taxes and get nothing in return in education. We both have to work hard take two jobs to be able to afford decent education for our child. This is so demotivating. I would not have to work if I would have benefits poor in our area are getting. It adds up with health insurance cost, education cost, housing cost… I wonder why we are working hard? And I know way too many people who are poor only on tax return. No wonder there is huge deficit. Where is this going? Non-performing elementary schools are not only in completely poor areas. Why we cannot get a voucher to chose the school? And seeing all the criticism that parents cannot measure results of schools – yes we can. If all kids from one private school get to any magnet school they chose, that is measurable. What are choices of middle class and who will fight for us? As we can see, nobody…Why bullying is acceptable in many public schools? Why it cannot be controlled like in many private schools? Should not teachers get better tools to handle behaviour issues? Why not to pay great teacher more money no matter his age and forget the pensions? The system would save a lot of money and get talent. But it is probably too dramatic change. By then, can we please get at least the voucher to chose our school? We, middle class.

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