A Conservative Hobbyhorse Heads for the Glue Factory
May 7, 2008
This Greg Anrig article about the rise and fall of school voucher programs, one of the winger movement’s most cherished hobbyhorses, is a must-read. As Anrig says, vouchers were the brainchild of libertarian economist Milton Friedman and it appears they will not long outlive him:
. . . in recent months, almost unnoticed by the mainstream media, the school voucher movement has abruptly stalled. Some stalwart advocates of vouchers have either repudiated the idea entirely or considerably tempered their enthusiasm for it. Exhibit A is “School Choice Isn’t Enough,” an article in the winter 2008 City Journal (the quarterly published by the conservative Manhattan Institute) written by the former voucher proponent Sol Stern. Acknowledging that voucher programs for poor children had “hit a wall,” Stern concluded: “Education reformers ought to resist unreflective support for elegant-sounding theories, derived from the study of economic activity, that don’t produce verifiable results in the classroom.” His conversion has triggered an intense debate in conservative circles. The center-right education scholar Chester E. Finn Jr., president of the Thomas B. Fordham Foundation and a longtime critic of public school bureaucracies and teachers unions, told the New York Sun that he was sympathetic to Stern’s argument. In his newly published memoirs, Finn also writes of his increasing skepticism that “the market’s invisible hand” produces improved performance on its own. Howard Fuller, an African American who was the superintendent of schools in Milwaukee when the voucher program was launched there, and who received substantial support from the Bradley Foundation and other conservative institutions over the years, has conceded, “It hasn’t worked like we thought it would in theory.”
School vouchers always made more sense as a union-busting tactic, and a blow to the teachers unions that are loyal supporters of Democratic candidates, than as any meaningful attempt at educational reform. Anrig documents that while voucher advocates were able to win publicity points by claiming they could work miracles with downtrodden urban school districts, they found themselves faced with resentment and resistance when they peddled their snake-oil outside the cities:
In 1997, the conservative writer Michael Gerson (who would go on to be George W. Bush’s chief speechwriter) took a tour of small-town Indiana when the state was considering a voucher program. He found that its predominantly conservative population prized its public schools (mostly because of their proud basketball tradition) and resented the suggestion that these institutions were failing their students. Over the years, various proposals for vouchers in Indiana have never progressed very far. “Conservative politicians running in this state quickly find that criticizing public education—or suggesting that some people might want to opt out—is like spitting on the school colors,” Gerson wrote in U.S. News & World Report, noting that in 1997, support for voucher programs was higher in the liberal Northeast than the more conservative Midwest.
I’ll say this much for the voucher pushers: unlike the backwater theocrats and frauds who continue to push abstinence-only curricula despite abundant evidence of its failure, many voucher proponents seem to have recognized the failure of the inherently bad idea and have moved on to charter schools — an approach with its owen set of problems. Not every conservative belongs to the “clap-louder-for-Tinkerbell” school. That’s a slender ray of hope for the future.