‘The radical potential of school vouchers’

In this recent Los Angeles Times piece, education historian Jonathan Zimmerman (pictured here) credits Mitt Romney for offering a more ambitious education agenda than President Obama. The Republican’s voucher plan, which would let students use government funding to attend  either private schools or public schools in other districts, “would take on the true sacred cow in American education: local control,” Zimmerman writes.

But here’s the part that really caught our eye: Zimmerman’s reference to the progressive roots of school choice. We can’t trumpet this theme enough, so here’s the relevant excerpt:

Yet the plan does remind us of the radical potential of school vouchers, which are today blithely dismissed by liberals as a right-wing plot to gut public education. But vouchers once drew significant support from the left too, including from such luminaries as Harvard sociologist Christopher Jencks and urban muckraker Jonathan Kozol.

To Jencks, who crafted a 1970 report on the subject for Richard Nixon’s White House, vouchers could help equalize American education if public as well as private schools were required to admit a certain fraction of low-income students. And the vouchers would have to be distributed progressively, with the poorest kids getting the biggest tuition assistance.

The Jencks report represented a high-water mark of bipartisanship for vouchers, which have sparked nasty political divisions ever since. Despite court rulings to the contrary, many Democrats insist that public vouchers used in parochial schools violate the separate of church and state. They also claim that vouchers hurt public schools by skimming off the best students, although a long-term voucher experiment in Milwaukee shows little evidence of that.