The Center for Public School Renewal

Note: Published in slightly different form as "Vouchers Need More Candid Talk" by The Detroit News, November 29, 2000.

Original Title:
Voucher Vote Aftermath: What's Next?
by Barry McGhan

The voucher question on Michigan's ballot went down to a resounding defeat. What have we learned from this experience?

Maybe we learned that

  • established education groups--school boards, teacher unions, and other education organizations--can band together to defend their turf from outsiders;

  • most citizens don't think public funds should disappear into private schools without some accounting for their use;

  • spending gobs of tax money on students already enrolled in private schools is too high a price to pay for helping relatively few students from public school districts.

However, we may only have learned that referendums are always hard to pass. That's what political scientists say. Most often, citizens play it safe and stick with the current system, instead of going for an untried new scheme. And, with all the campaign fog from both sides, we still may not know whether the idea of vouchers has merit or not.

That's too bad, because voucher supporters vowed, even before the election, to bring the question back to voters if they lost. And, as the opponents of Detroit's casinos learned, when moneyed interests keep coming back to voters with the same question, eventually they can win. Voucher backers will have plenty of money to take a run at another vote.

A recent study by the Public Agenda organization provides some clues about the future. Their research on vouchers and charter schools, called "On Thin Ice," found that most Americans are unfamiliar with vouchers. That may explain why the Michigan proposal lost by a large margin. People were unwilling to approve something they didn't understand.

Public Agenda goes on to say that most Americans--after receiving a careful explanation of vouchers--seem positively inclined to the idea, although they see it as a partial solution at best. The public's initial preferences include making vouchers available for all families (a clearly bad idea), and would allow them to be used at religious schools (a possibly bad idea). This heartens voucher backers because it means if they keep coming back with the issue, more and more people can be expected to respond favorably. How long this might take is anybody's guess, but only a little more than 20% of voters need to shift in order for vouchers to pass.

Another Public Agenda finding is that, although most Americans are not ready to dismantle the public school system, frustration with it runs high. That's especially true when it comes to school management and the slowness of reform. Michigan voucher opponents are now pledging to improve public schools, but can they? Public Agenda's take on the issue is that the public is, no pun intended, keeping its school options open.

What would be helpful for thinking through the idea of vouchers would be a little more candor from each side. Here are some examples of topics that could benefit from plain talk.

On the pro-voucher side, it would be good to hear supporters admit there's no clear evidence that private schools deliver a better education than public schools. Voucher opponents could then admit that a parent might help her child by moving from a troubled public school to a private one, even if the latter is only average.

Voucher proponents might admit that only a fraction of public school students could take advantage of vouchers because the number of available seats in private schools is so small. Voucher opponents could agree that helping a lucky few to move to somewhat better schools provides a quick fix for motivated parents who justifiably feel they can't wait for public schools to become more effective.

Supporters could admit that private schools have an unfair advantage over public schools because they can turn away, or turn out, those students and families that can't or won't cooperate with the mission of the school. Voucher opponents might ask the other side to embrace measures that would enable public schools to operate more like private schools.

Supporters might confess that even with public funding, they still don't have the means or inclination to provide services to the wide variety of special needs students that public schools serve. Opponents might then ask voucher supporters to work toward truly adequate funding for these students in the public schools, as well as greater flexibility with respect to the restrictive rules that govern special needs student services.

Finally, voucher proponents could acknowledge that the whole public pays for schools, not just parents, and therefore has a legitimate interest in seeing that its money helps the whole community. Then, voucher opponents might admit that producing well-educated citizens benefits the community as a whole, even when they come out of private schools.

Dare we hope for more candid talk on vouchers than we have seen so far? I've got my fingers crossed.

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