The Center for Public School Renewal

Note: Published in slightly different form as "School Vouchers Confront an Uphill Battle in Michigan" by The Detroit News, 7/7/2002.

Original Title:
Whither Vouchers Now?
by Barry McGhan

Will the recent pro-voucher ruling by the U.S. Supreme Court cause a multitude of voucher programs to spring up around the country? Could be. Has the ruling settled the voucher controversy? Not a chance.

We only need look at the Roe v. Wade pro-abortion decision more than a quarter-century ago to gain some perspective on the pro-voucher ruling. Certainly, the number of abortions increased. But, though legal, they remain highly controversial.

What such rulings do is change the arena for the controversy – from a legal one to a political one. In the years since abortions were legalized, the anti-abortion forces have steadily chipped away at their use, through one legislative constraint after another. Other activist strategies, such as abortion clinic picketing, have bolstered the legislative curbs. Anti-voucher forces will likely find their own political and activist strategies. As they say, "It ain't over till the fat lady sings."

In southern states, where teachers' unions are relatively weak, vouchers could be approved. In states like Michigan, with a fairly strong and politically active teachers' union, the pro-voucher forces will have much more of a struggle. News of the Court ruling drew a quick response from backers of Michigan's failed 2000 pro-voucher ballot proposal. They promise to bring it to a vote again in 2004 or 2006 – the same promise they made after their proposal was rejected by about 7 out of 10 voters two years ago.

In Michigan, the Court ruling raises questions. Why did voters turn down vouchers so resoundingly in 2000? And, will the Court decision change those reasons?

It seems unlikely that voucher constitutionality was a major factor in voter's minds. More likely, voters felt that vouchers were either unnecessary, or potentially harmful to public schools. As long as the majority continues to feel that way, vouchers will be turned down.

The Supreme Court ruling doesn't demand that vouchers be allowed. It permits them to be used where the public, through its representatives, deems it appropriate. In a sense, all the ruling does is take away the easiest anti-voucher argument, that of unconstitutionality. All the other anti-voucher arguments remain, and will be pursued politically.

Such arguments include the charge that vouchers will help no more than a small fraction of needy students. Another is that private school students who are not currently receiving public support will be eligible for vouchers. This might require increasing the funding for education to cover the new clientele. Or, it may mean that part of the pot of available money will be spent on vouchers, thus reducing the proportion that goes to public schools. And, while the loss of students to private schools will somewhat reduce the operating costs of public schools, districts' fixed costs are not so easily trimmed when students leave.

Even the constitutionality of vouchers may not be permanently settled. The narrow 5/4 pro-voucher margin permits the speculation that a future Court might reverse this ruling, as has happened in some other cases. In hindsight it seems no surprise that the five justices who, in effect, selected George W. Bush to be President would also vote to support his pro-voucher education policy. Another President ... another Supreme Court, and who is to say whether the current ruling will stand.

Some school choice proponents may find the pro-voucher ruling a mixed blessing. For example, if state funding were to go to private schools through vouchers, that could have a negative impact on regular public schools and public charter schools, drawing clients away from both. Other school choice advocates might argue that universal vouchers just won't fly in Michigan, and propose a more targeted approach, say only in urban districts with low test scores. These districts, by the way, are mostly the ones where charters have already made their biggest inroads.

In spite of the Supreme Court ruling, vouchers remain a weak and questionable strategy to help a few children. The best outcome to be had from the ruling may be to pressure slow-to-change public education bureaucracies to improve their operations. For example, the state might improve its efforts to provide parents and the taxpaying public with a variety of useful facts about school operations. Then, if vouchers are approved here, we would also have the means to assess closely-held private school operations.

Further, districts might create more appealing choices within their own systems by increasing the number of magnet and alternative programs. They might turn over some real power and authority to individual schools, and encourage a school's staff to develop its own creative solutions to educating kids. They could even use the charter school law to spin off some of their own schools and teachers into charter schools.

If such things happen – and kids benefit – vouchers might be a blessing in disguise.


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