Originally proposed by Economics Nobel Laureate Milton Friedman in 1955, educational vouchers and related types of school choice have increasingly become the main focus of conservative education- reformers, as attractive to parochial-school Christian conservatives as to free-market libertarians. In the past year, some prominent liberal journalists, such as Matt Miller writing in The Atlantic and John Judis in The New Republic, have moved to consider or even embrace them. Now, suddenly, a chain of unconnected events will decide the triumph or collapse of the voucher movement — by the end of this year.
Although school vouchers have generated an inordinate amount of attention in policy and media circles — both pro and con — and have regularly stirred the juices of political activists of the left and the right, they still scarcely exist in America on a significant scale. Every attempt to enact vouchers through ballot initiatives at the state or local level has gone down to defeat at the hands of the teachers unions, often by a very wide margin, and those few voucher proposals enacted through the legislative process are regularly challenged in court. Today, public and private school-voucher programs combined include just 70,000 students, only one-tenth of one percent of our school-age population, and a minute fraction of (say) the estimated two million children in home-schooling programs, which attract much less media attention.
Furthermore, most of the heavy media coverage surrounding vouchers or charter-school proposals seems to have been almost totally ignored by the general public. A major research study by the non-partisan Public Agenda organization indicates that the vast majority of the public — parents of school-age children included — know almost nothing about vouchers, sometimes confusing them with government credits to buy school uniforms. Remarkably enough, even 75% of parents in those trailblazing cities that have had government- voucher programs for years — Milwaukee and Cleveland — feel they know too little about the concept to have formed either a positive or a negative opinion.
All this is about to change, with school vouchers on the verge of becoming a centerpiece of the 2000 election cycle. Within just a few months, vouchers will either have become the law of the land in one or more of America’s largest states — or will be dead politically.
In the past few years, wealthy school-choice activists such as Ted Forstmann and John Walton have poured hundreds of millions of dollars into private programs aimed at “priming the pump” for vouchers, but expanding such programs to include even one percent of America’s students would require billions of dollars annually, sums of money which only the taxpaying public as a whole can readily afford. This year, three of America’s largest states will — or will not — decide to spend such billions on vouchers, and this political triple-header probably represents an “up or out” scenario for voucher advocates and foes.
In California, billionaire venture-capitalist Tim Draper has placed a sweeping voucher measure on the November ballot, arguing that only the free- market principles of competition that built Silicon Valley can revive California’s decrepit school system. A previous California voucher initiative went down to a titanic 40 point defeat in 1993; but that measure was outspent nearly 10- 1 in advertising by the teachers unions, and this time round, Draper reportedly plans to back the measure with $20-40 million from his vast Internet fortune, probably enough funding to match the unions dollar-for-dollar. Under such circumstances, the Draper initiative will be the best-funded voucher initiative ever, and probably a fair test of the underlying popularity of the concept. Draper has already assembled a team of veteran political consultants, architects of Newt Gingrich’s 1994 Congressional landslide.
The state of Michigan is witnessing a very similar effort, a statewide voucher initiative financially backed by the DeVos family of Amway fame and other Catholic conservatives; they plan to spend $5 million or more in support. Although the DeVos measure is far more limited than the Draper initiative, its passage would certainly provide educational vouchers to tens of thousands of students.
Finally, a limited Florida voucher law will have its constitutionality decided by that state’s supreme court, probably by the end of this year. The proposal was signed into law by Gov. Jeb Bush in 1999, and restricts the distribution of vouchers to students at public schools with dismal and stagnant educational performance. Although just a negligible 56 students statewide were eligible the first year, estimates are that those numbers could grow into the tens of thousands over the next few years, if the law is upheld.
Despite the strong forces backing these state efforts, even proponents admit that they face a series of uphill battles.
The Draper initiative — the most sweeping and important of the three — is already under harsh attack by some prominent voucher advocates for being universal rather than means-tested, although this approach is backed by Prof. Friedman and supported by considerable polling; activist resentment of Draper’s intrusion on their political “turf” is probably the dominant factor. Opponents, led by the teachers unions, will probably unite the entire political establishment of the state against the measure, and run a very-well-funded and sophisticated media campaign, supplemented by a massive union get-out-the-vote effort not seen since a California initiative battle over union dues in June 1998. If conservatives and school-choice supporters remain publicly divided on the proposal, and continue to provide numerous negative comments to the press, the opposing paid media will be supplemented by massive and unremittingly negative free media, and the measure — regardless of the depth of Draper’s pockets — is doomed.
Recent polling indicates that California Republicans could lose 3-4 Congressional seats in any case, and see challenger Rep. Tom Campbell suffer a landslide defeat against incumbent Sen. Dianne Feinstein; George W. Bush also trails Al Gore in that state by a considerable margin. Even if Republicans do no worse than these early polls indicate — but if the Draper initiative loses decisively — Republican leaders will naturally (if unfairly) seek to shift the blame to vouchers, and probably succeed to a considerable extent, causing the national party to distance itself from the issue.
The results from Michigan would probably confirm this political judgment. There, the Republican establishment has done its best to prevent the DeVos initiative from reaching the ballot, fearing it will provoke a large turnout of blacks (in support of vouchers) and union members (in opposition), all of whom will then vote Democratic up-and-down the rest of the ticket. Since Michigan is a key battleground state between Bush and Gore, and incumbent Republican Sen. Spencer Abraham is fighting for survival, a huge turnout by blacks and union members might doom the Republicans in these races and probably also shift control of the lower house of the state legislature to the Democrats, costing the Republicans their chance at Congressional redistricting following the 2000 Census.
Sen. Abraham and Republican Gov. John Engler have already publicly come out against the voucher proposal, but this merely provides further ammunition to the anti-voucher campaign, while angering pro-voucher conservatives. A measure that unites Democrats and divides Republicans faces a very difficult challenge, and, if unsuccessful, would be heavily blamed for other Republican defeats.
Finally, the legal case against the Florida voucher proposal seems far more likely to succeed than other recent constitutional challenges to vouchers, since it is based on state rather than federal constitutional grounds. It would be difficult for the U.S. Supreme Court to strike down voucher proposals allowing parochial-school participation on First Amendment grounds — after all, the post-World War II GI Bill allowed veterans to use their college-tuition “vouchers” at religious as well as secular universities. By contrast, the Florida state constitution requires the state to fund a “public school” education for all students, and a district judge has already ruled that this prohibits public-education dollars from being shifted to private schools.
Florida court rulings aside, it is quite possible that all sides in these California and Michigan campaigns will have spent a combined total of close to a hundred million dollars by election day, sums of money comparable to the budget of a Presidential campaign, and enough of an advertising budget to push vouchers to the forefront of public consciousness. If the issue does consequently become a major focus of the battle between Bush and Gore, it will attract even more visibility and public debate.
As a conservative skeptical of voucher proposals, I have no direct stake in this battle. But both national voucher advocates and opponents should realize that over the next five months the voters of California and Michigan will determine whether the voucher movement triumphs at last or fades into obscurity. Fifty years of policy theory now hang on five months of campaigning.
National leaders of the voucher movement may not have chosen the timing of these battles, and they may not agree with all the specific details of the Draper and DeVos measures; but the national media and the Republican party will interpret these votes as a near-national referendum on vouchers and school choice. Decisive defeats — and simultaneous Republican-party political losses — will permanently cripple the voucher movement and probably eliminate any momentum for charter schools and other less-drastic forms of school choice as well. Voucher victories in any of these states will immediately transform the program from a small-scale laboratory experiment into a huge, measurable reality.
For better or for worse, High Noon for vouchers is now at hand.