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The Right Thing

Why liberals should be pro-choice


Schools, Vouchers and the American Public by Terry M. Moe (Brookings Institution Press, 452 pp., $29.95)

A year ago vouchers appeared to be a dead issue, when voters in California and Michigan resoundingly rejected proposals to allow public funds to follow students to nonpublic schools. Vouchers lost in both states by margins of seventy to thirty. Despite these setbacks, however, the controversy over vouchers shows no signs of abating. The proponents of the idea are continuing their campaign with undimmed ardor, and the critics are left wondering why the issue persists in the face of a steady string of electoral defeats.

Among scholars, too, the debate over vouchers is as intense as ever, not only about whether they help disadvantaged children to get a better education but also about the desirability and the legality of allowing government funds to pay for tuition in non-public (and especially religious) schools. Advocates say that vouchers will help to expand educational opportunities for low-income children who are trapped in failing schools, while critics say that vouchers will undermine the American public school system, promote segregation along racial and religious lines, and violate the principle of the separation of church and state. Owing to the paucity of empirical evidence, it is hard to say whether the advocates or the critics are right; but it is worth noting that the evidence is scarce because of the largely successful campaign to block vouchers.

Three public voucher programs are actually in operation, all authorized by state legislatures in the 1990s. Two of them, in Milwaukee and Cleveland, target low-income children. The third, in Florida, targets children in low-performing schools (which tend to be in low-income areas). The urban programs permit about 14,000 children--10,000 in Milwaukee, 4,000 in Cleveland, a small proportion of each district's total public school enrollment--to attend private and parochial schools at public expense. In Florida, only a few dozen students thus far have transferred to private and parochial schools. There are also long-standing voucher programs in Vermont and New Hampshire, in which high school students may use public funds to enroll in non-public schools, but they are not permitted to choose religious schools.

The Supreme Court has not ruled on the constitutionality of vouchers; it declined to hear the Milwaukee case after the Wisconsin Supreme Court declared the program constitutional. In Ohio, federal district and appellate courts found the Cleveland program to be unconstitutional, but the Supreme Court took the unusual step of voiding the district court's injunction, so that the children can continue to go to school while the case is being appealed to the Supreme Court. Last week the Supreme Court agreed to review the Cleveland voucher program. 

The modern voucher movement traces its origins to writings by Milton Friedman in the 1950s and 1960s. Friedman argued, not surprisingly, that thepublic schools had few incentives to improve because they were a government-run monopoly. If the government gave vouchers to parents to choose their own school, he argued, schools would then compete to attract students and resources, thus leading to overall educational improvement.Friedman's views attracted a devoted following among free-market conservatives and religious parents, but they had no traction in the political world.However interesting Friedman's ideas, not many urban or suburban parents were prepared to take a leap of faith that might possibly threaten thefamiliar public school.

The voucher movement soon developed a liberal face, focused on the goal of equity for poor children, under the guidance of law professors Jack Coons and Stephen Sugarman. Coons and Sugarman campaigned in California for vouchers as a means of empowering poor parents, and for the equalization of school funding in that state and eventually in others as well. It is the equity version of the voucher movement, not the free-market model of Milton Friedman, that has taken root in the past decade.

In his recent book Choosing Equality, Joseph Viteritti has shown how the voucher issue evolved from its libertarian roots into a strategy whose main beneficiaries are disadvantaged inner-city children. Viteritti contends--I think rightly--that vouchers have now become a civil rights issue for a new generation of African American activists. Howard Fuller, a former Milwaukee superintendent, and Polly Williams, a Wisconsin legislator, led thecampaign for vouchers in Milwaukee to save inner-city children, and to pressure the public schools to better serve disadvantaged students; and so did Fannie Lewis, a city council member in Cleveland.

So the movement that began a halfcentury ago under the banner of freemarket ideas is now directed by a coalition of white conservatives and inner-city black leaders. Its goal is not to supply a government voucher to everyone, but to provide vouchers only to disadvantaged children. (The white conservatives may hope ultimately to achieve a universal voucher, but their partners are interested only in the neediest children.) The transformation ofthe voucher movement and its prospects for the future are thoughtfully assessed in Terry M. Moe's new book.

Moe's analysis of the politics of vouchers is cogent and balanced. Most of the book is a dispassionate discussion of a public-opinion survey about schools and vouchers that he commissioned several years ago. Moe's dispassion is particularly impressive because he is best known for Politics, Markets, and America's Schools, the controversial book that he and John Chubb produced in 1990. Chubb and Moe argued a decade ago that school choice was the reform likeliest to free schools from the dead hand of bureaucratic control. 

In his new book, Moe makes no attempt to proselytize for his views. Instead he candidly appraises the strengths and the weaknesses of the voucher movement in light of public opinion; and what he discovers will be useful to both friends and foes of vouchers. He found that two-thirds of those sampled in the poll have never heard of vouchers, and consequently not many have given much thought to the issue. Americans are generally satisfied with the quality of their local public schools (especially if they are public school parents), and they have a warm attachment to the "public school ideology," the idea that public schools bring us together as a society. When vouchers come up for vote, Moe reports, opponents appeal to these sentiments to persuade voters that voucher proposals--whose details are complicated and whose effects are always uncertain--are risky schemes that threaten our public schools and our society. Moe notes that Americans are basically incrementalists when it comes to school reform; they want improvement, not revolution. As he remarks, "Americans like the public school system," and they like it "even when the system is not doing its job very well."

All of this is good news for opponents of vouchers. But Moe also finds that there is a significant latent constituency for vouchers. Most public school parents, 52 percent, would send their children to private school if money were not an obstacle. Among inner-city public school parents, 67 percent would choose a private school if they could afford it. When vouchers are explained to them, 77 percent of inner-city parents favor the idea. Most interestingly of all, the most consistent support for vouchers in Moe's survey comes from low-income African Americans who cannot exercise residential choice.

According to Moe's data, while elite opinion-makers argue vehemently about whether it is constitutional for religious schools to accept any form of public funding, the public is not similarly divided. When asked whether parents should be able to use vouchers (if they existed) at both private and parochial schools, 79 percent of those surveyed agreed that religious schools should be included. This view is shared by 83 percent of public school parents, and even by 70 percent of those who oppose vouchers. Since the overwhelming majority of non-public schools are religious, any voucher plan that excluded these schools would offer very few seats and would do little to expand educational choice.

The public, Moe continually reminds the reader, is deeply ambivalent about vouchers. They like the public school system. They do not want to harm it. But meaningful numbers of people, especially those who are black, young, and poor, like the idea of vouchers, because they believe that thecurrent system is inequitable for their children. In a state-level political campaign, defenders of the status quo are well-organized and well-funded; they appeal to the public's legitimate fear of radical change, with its unpredictable consequences. Voucher supporters can offer little more than promises and abstractions. As long as vouchers are perceived as a dangerous threat to the status quo, they will continue to lose at the polling place.

And yet Moe is surprisingly optimistic about the future of vouchers. He believes that the best hope for vouchers is to mobilize support in the inner cities, where school performance is weakest and parental dissatisfaction is greatest. The free-market model is dead; but vouchers for the poor, with appropriate regulations for accountability and equity, are very much alive. Politically, he suggests, vouchers will fare best in the regular political process, when acted on by elected officials. The initiative route will never succeed because it is so easy to mobilize opposition to change, even (and perhaps especially) when the benefits are targeted to the poor. Moreover, he predicts that mainline civil rights organizations such as the NAACP will eventually support vouchers because of their constituents' strong interest in expanding opportunity, as well as the persistence of poorly functioning schools in the inner city. When that happens, he believes, the coalition of liberal groups opposing vouchers will be considerably weakened.

The most important advantage for vouchers, Moe concludes, is the existence of the public programs in Milwaukee and Cleveland, as well as thedozens of privately funded voucher programs now serving about 60,000 low-income children in cities across the nation. Ordinary citizens can see thatthe public school systems in Milwaukee and Cleveland have not collapsed, nor have they been harmed by the availability of vouchers for poor kids. Some studies suggest that the school system in Milwaukee has responded positively to competition with non-public schools with its own new reform initiatives. Every time the public sees a photograph of inner-city children in their neatly pressed parochial school uniforms, it reminds them that this is not a dangerous or risky venture. Moe predicts that as more and more students use vouchers without the opposition's dire predictions coming to pass, the public will accept them as one more choice in a system that already offers a wide variety of choices, such as magnet schools, alternative schools, and charter schools.

So why does the voucher movement survive one near-death experience after another? Why does it continue to thrive even after it gets a drubbing atthe polls? To be sure, there are true believers in the voucher camp whose convictions are unaffected by public opinion surveys and elections. Losing an election by more than two to one does not discourage them--no more than it would have discouraged civil rights leaders to lose a state or local referendum on segregation laws in the 1950s.

But there are other reasons that the voucher movement does not die. Americans are accustomed to having many choices in their lives: where to live, how to live, where to work, where to go to college, what to believe, and so on. They are sympathetic, as a matter of principle, to the notion that they should decide which school their child attends. When a petty bureaucrat tells them that their child must go to a particular school and to no other, some parents must experience cognitive dissonance: why must Jane go to the Kennedy School and not to the Lincoln School, when they are equidistant from home?

Recognizing this reaction, the anti-voucher forces have embraced public school choice, hoping to build a firewall against vouchers. Public school choice has expanded to include a wide array of curricular alternatives, all of them operating as part of the public school system but offering something different from the neighborhood public school. Vouchers, on the other hand, allow students to use public funds to transfer to schools that are operated not by the government but by private and religious agencies. As public schools respond to demands for choice by opening public charter schools and theme schools (schools for arts, technology, business, law studies, and so on), the demand for choice may be whetted, rather than satisfied, by the available offerings.

What rankles those who have no choice in the current system, of course, is that there are ample choices for those who have the resources to move to another district. For most Americans, the most meaningful choice is the decision to live in a different school district that has better public schools. As Moe's survey shows, those who lack the wherewithal to move are the ones who are most interested in vouchers for a private or religious school.

Even if only 30 percent of the population actively want vouchers, they would not necessarily agree that they were wrong just because they were outvoted. If 70 percent of car buyers want only a black car, this would not persuade the rest to change their minds, nor would automobile manufacturers produce only black cars, even for people who prefer red or tan cars. Besides, Americans do not believe that you should give up if you lose an election. Our history teaches us that third parties may lose in the short run, but some of their ideas ultimately are accepted if they persevere. 

The voucher controversy presents an issue in which basic democratic values are in conflict. On one side are those who passionately believe that only government-run schools can create a democratic community; and on the other side are those who insist that it is undemocratic to deny freedom of choice, particularly when choices are easily accessible to the affluent. If the public is ambivalent about school choice, as Moe says, there is good reason for their ambivalence.

Some comparisons are instructive. Among the modern industrialized nations of the world, the United States is in a minority on this issue. Of the thirty nations that are part of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, only seven do not permit any government funding of K-12 private schools; in addition to the United States, they include Greece, Ireland, Japan, Mexico, Portugal, and Turkey. The proportion of students in government-funded private schools is sizable in countries such as Australia (25 percent), Belgium (58 percent), Denmark (11 percent), France (16.8 percent), South Korea (21 percent), the Netherlands (76 percent), Spain (24 percent), and the United Kingdom (30 percent). The remaining sixteen nations subsidize private education, but their enrollments are smaller. In this category are countries such as Austria (7 percent), Canada (2 percent), Finland (4 percent), Luxembourg (6 percent), Sweden (2 percent), and Switzerland (2 percent). Yet even these small enrollments are significant: inthe United States, 2 percent would translate into about one million children.

In the countries that provide public funding for private schools, the government pays for all or part of the cost of non-public schools so that parental choice (and, in most cases, religious freedom) is not limited by the family's ability to pay. In all instances, the government establishes quality standards and accountability for government-funded private schools. In some, students in the non-government schools must adhere to the national curriculum; in others, they must take the national test; in still others, the private school may develop its own curriculum and tests. Typically, thegovernment requires independent schools that receive public funding to agree to respect the constitution and democratic values, as a way of ensuring that the state is not supporting schools that teach hateful ideologies.

The OECD recently reported that demand for government-funded private school choice has grown in Belgium, the United Kingdom, the Netherlands, and Spain. In the United States, on the other hand, the 14,000 or so students using vouchers in Milwaukee, Cleveland, and Florida are not even a blip in the nation's educational statistics. Even public charter schools are a relatively minor phenomenon: their enrollment grew from zero to about 500,000 during the 1990s, but that is less than 1 percent of enrollment in American K-12 schools.


Americans balk at vouchers largely because they are deeply attached to the tradition of the public schools. The idea of the public school--the school that is open to all, is funded by taxes, and teaches everyone a common curriculum and a common public philosophy--is a treasured part of the culture of American democracy. Most democratic nations have imitated to some degree the American ideal that education is for all, not just for the children ofthe elite, even if, as the OECD numbers indicate, most other democratic nations do not assume that only government can manage government-funded schools. 

We have good reason to be proud of our public schools. They currently educate 90 percent of our nation's children, and they are rightly credited with helping to assimilate wave upon wave of immigrants in the early twentieth century. Most Americans are graduates of public schools and feel a warm affection for the teachers who educated them. (I count myself among them.) The public schools are, and will continue to be, a central institution of American life. About this there is no question. But there is more to be said, especially about the variegated history of education in the United States.

As valuable as the public schools are, it is important to recognize that there have been many other educational traditions in the United States. At thetime that Horace Mann launched his crusade to improve common schools in Massachusetts, there were many settings in which children were educated.Schooling was supplied at home, or by freelance teachers, or by church schools, or by private academies, or by district schools managed by locally elected boards, or by charity schools for the poor. For the first quarter of the nineteenth century, New York state divided up its state education funds among the church schools of New York City, and it subsidized private academies across the state. In the second quarter of the nineteenth century, free schooling in New York City was provided by a nonprofit corporation founded by Quakers. Lowell, Massachusetts briefly supported both town schools and Catholic schools. California's first state school law, adopted in 1851, provided that any religious school that conformed to state requirements would receive public funds based on its enrollment. In 1856, the Texas legislature declared that all schools in the state were entitled to a pro rata share of public funds. The American tradition of education, in other words, was decidedly pluralistic.

In the middle of the nineteenth century, however, two important movements appeared that were unsympathetic to this diversity of educational provision. One was the common school movement, which sought to spread public schooling to every hamlet, county, district, and city in the land. The other was the nativist movement, which was animated by the hatred of immigrants and of Catholicism. As the historian Lloyd P. Jorgenson showed in 1987 in The State and the Non-Public School, the common school movement became a vehicle for evangelical Protestants, many of whom were bitterly anti-Catholic.

Some of the most prominent school reformers of the mid-nineteenth century were Protestant clergymen who expected that the public school would be a bulwark against Romanism. A striking number of state and city superintendents were Protestant clergymen who easily shifted from religious evangelizing to educational evangelizing. Robert J. Breckinridge, known as the "father of public education in Kentucky," came to that state from Baltimore, where his diatribes against "papism" had inflamed mobs to attack a Carmelite convent. Lyman Beecher, one of the leaders of the common school movement in the Midwest, advocated the establishment of public schools to head off what he believed would be a Catholic conquest of that region. Beecher's anti-Catholic sermons stirred a mob in Boston to burn down an Ursuline convent in 1834. According to Ruth Miller Elson in Guardians of Tradition, her authoritative study of nineteenth-century textbooks, "no theme in these schoolbooks before 1870 is more universal than anti-Catholicism." What American children were taught in their readers was the ignorance, the cupidity, and the tyranny of the Catholic church.

Common school leaders, including Horace Mann, did not want the public schools to be stripped of all religious influence. On the contrary, they wanted them to be suffused with a spirit of non-denominational Protestantism, reinforced by Bible reading and prayers. Mann, a Unitarian, defendedthe public schools of Massachusetts against charges that they were anti-Christian by insisting that the Bible was to be found in every school and that students were free to arrive at their own religious beliefs. To Catholics, Mann's non-sectarian Christianity looked very much like Unitarianism. It was not long before Catholics acted in their own defense. In reaction to bitter controversies over Bible reading in the schools and to the rising political power of the virulently anti-Catholic Know-Nothing Party, the Catholic hierarchy resolved at the First Baltimore Plenary Council in 1852--a convocation ofthe nation's bishops--to encourage the creation of parochial schools in every diocese. (Some parochial schools already existed.)

Most of the nineteenth-century legislation that denied public funding to non-public schools was sponsored by the Know-Nothing Party, with thepurpose of crippling Catholic schools and forcing Catholic children into public schools. In 1875, when the Republican presidential candidate James G. Blaine proposed a constitutional amendment to prohibit the use of public funds in sectarian schools, anti-Catholicism was once again the subtext. (Inthe rhetoric of the day, Catholic schools were "sectarian," whereas public schools that were thoroughly imbued with Protestant practices were not.) In contrast to today's debates, Republicans favored the Blaine amendment and Democrats defended pluralism. Blaine's amendment did not pass, but Republicans added it to their national platform in 1976. By the end of the century, twenty-nine states had incorporated a version of the Blaine amendment into their state constitutions.

Jorgenson mordantly comments on the eventual influence of these events: "Much later the disinheritance of the church-related schools, a doctrine born of bigotry at the state level, was transmuted by the U.S. Supreme Court into high constitutional principle." These developments, rooted in virulent anti-Catholic prejudice, changed the American tradition of education from a pluralistic system that blurred the line between public and private institutions to a system in which the government became the sole provider of public schooling. By the beginning of the twentieth century, school officials could boast of the public school as a patriotic institution, implying that those who failed to send their children to the government schools were less than good Americans.

In the colleges of education that were created at the turn of the century, moreover, the professoriat saw its future aligned with the establishment of a government-controlled school system. And so it transpired that historians of education, many of them former principals and superintendents, told a story in which the American public school was the triumphant climax of an evolutionary history, and all other kinds of schools were obsolete, reactionary, or merely transitional institutions. This was the tale told in the textbooks written by Ellwood P. Cubberley, the leading historian of American education in the early decades of the twentieth century. (A former school superintendent, Cubberley was dean of education at Stanford University.)

By the beginning of the twentieth century, Catholic and other religious schools had been completely excluded from public funding, but this was not enough for some boosters of the public schools. After World War I, xenophobic groups (including the Masons and the Ku Klux Klan) waged campaigns in half a dozen states to shut down non-public schools. In 1922, voters in Oregon approved an initiative to require all children between theages of eight and sixteen to attend public school. In 1925, in a landmark decision in Pierce v. The Society of Sisters, the Supreme Court overturnedthe Oregon law, holding that "the fundamental theory of liberty upon which all governments in this Union repose excludes any general power of thestate to standardize its children by forcing them to accept instruction from public teachers only. The child is not the mere creature of the state; those who nurture him and direct his destiny have the right coupled with the high duty to recognize and prepare him for additional obligations."

As a consequence of this decision, non-public schools survived the efforts to eliminate them; but the battle over their right to receive some form of public funding never ended. The Elementary and Secondary Education Act, passed by Congress in 1965, made poor students in non-public schools eligible to receive federal aid for remedial services. (Federal aid to education would probably not have passed without the support of urban Catholic Democrats.) Aguilar v. Felton, a Supreme Court decision in 1985, imperiled this aid by prohibiting public school teachers from delivering federally supported remedial services on the premises of non-public schools. That ruling was overturned by Agostini v. Felton in 1997. (Trying to make sense of conflicting Supreme Court decisions in this area is an academic parlor game.) Last year, in Mitchell v. Helms, the Court upheld a state law that gives direct state aid to parochial schools for computers and equipment, thereby affirming at least a faint echo of the diversity that characterized American schools in the nineteenth century.

Meanwhile, though, Catholic schools continue to be closed in the inner cities, as the Church finds it increasingly difficult to underwrite rising salaries for its lay teachers. A decade ago, the sociologist and priest Andrew Greeley predicted that "the first voucher will arrive on the day that the last Catholic school closes." Not many people think that this would be a healthy development for American society, and certainly not for the children who now populate Catholic schools in the inner cities.

It is in this historical context that we must regard the great debate about vouchers today. It is properly understood as a continuation of a long-running battle in American history about the relationship between public schools and non-public schools. The critics of vouchers would have the public believe that the wall between church and state is high and impregnable and must not be breached; but in truth the wall looks as if it were made of Swiss cheese. Today religious schools, especially those that enroll low-income children, receive a variety of federal and state funds for transportation, textbooks, computers, state-mandated activities such as testing, special education for handicapped children, and remedial services. Federal and state funds flow to religious institutions that provide preschool and higher education, as well as to religious agencies that manage hospitals, homes for theaged, adoption agencies, and other social services. So the argument against vouchers does not really rest on the principle of separation, which is so regularly ignored in the provision of public services. In many ways the wall between church and state has already been breached, and theconsequences for democratic life in America have hardly been catastrophic.

We know what the world looks like without vouchers. What would it look like if they became a regular feature of American education? A voucher program at any level of government could only be established by public officials, who would define the eligibility criteria for those who receive them, and these officials would certainly require any schools receiving vouchers to comply with standards for equity and accountability. As in Milwaukee and Cleveland, public officials are sure to establish means-tests, so that a voucher becomes a scholarship for needy students.

This is the conundrum that vouchers present: why are children from impoverished families ineligible for tuition support if they attend St. Joseph's High School, but fully qualified to receive a Pell Grant from the federal government if they enroll in St. Joseph's College a few blocks away? Why is federal funding, and in some cases state funding, readily available to religious-sponsored institutions of higher education? Imagine if our system of higher education lacked any public scholarships for poor students to attend private universities; few other than affluent students could then afford to attend such universities, and our institutions of higher education would be far more segregated by race and income than they presently are. Critics worry about state-supported religious indoctrination in higher education, but we have safeguards against extremist institutions: we may deny them accreditation or tax-exempt status. Surely the same principles and safeguards could be applied in elementary and secondary education.

What would happen to American public schools if there were public scholarships for low-income students to attend any accredited school? The public schools, certainly, have nothing to fear. They would continue to thrive, just as public higher education thrives even though there are federal and state "vouchers" that enable poor students to attend private universities. Both the advocates of vouchers and the opponents of vouchers imply that thepublic schools would be mortally wounded if vouchers were available for poor kids, but no such disaster is likely to happen.

As Moe's survey demonstrates, most Americans like their public schools, and are satisfied with the quality of education their children receive in the local public school; and there is no reason for vouchers to undermine this general (but not universal) sense of security. Eighty percent of American college students are enrolled in public institutions, and we can expect at least eighty percent of elementary and secondary students to continue to enroll in public schools. And given the limited number of seats available in non-public schools, the proportion shifting out of public schools would likely be considerably less.

The struggle over vouchers, then, will justifiably continue. Electoral defeats and opinion polls, whether favorable or unfavorable to either side, will not end the debate. The debate continues because there truly is a crisis--not in American education as a whole, but in a specific sector of American education. The crisis is to be found in our inner cities, and among African American and Hispanic children in particular. The tests that are regularly administered by the Department of Education have shown that there is a four-year gap in achievement in every subject area between white high school seniors and minority high school seniors--that is, the scores of the average black or Hispanic senior are about the same as those of the average white eighth-grader. The graduation rate for white children is near 80 percent, but in some cities, including Cleveland, Milwaukee, Memphis, and New York, less than half of African American students graduate from high school. This constitutes nothing less than a national emergency.

Yes, we should reduce class size; yes, we should increase teachers' salaries; yes, we should break up the large factory-style schools in which kids get lost. But surely the emergency requires more. We must do whatever we can to end the awful cycle of wasted lives--which includes giving vouchers a chance, and thereby giving poor kids a chance to escape the schools that are cruelly not educating them.

This article originally ran in the October 8, 2001, issue of the magazine.