Schools, Vouchers, and the American Public

Article excerpt

SCHOOLS, VOUCHERS, AND THE AMERICAN PUBLIC. MOE, T.M. (2001) WASHINGTON, D.C.: THE BROOKINGS INSTITUTION.

In Schools, Vouchers, and the American Public, Terry Moe, professor of political science at Stanford University, provides a comprehensive examination of the school voucher issue by not only describing what the American public thinks about vouchers, but also analyzing why they think that way and how their opinions are likely to influence the politics that shapes public policy in American education. The book includes a thorough discussion of his findings from an extensive, nationally representative survey of 4,700 adults conducted in 1995 regarding school choice and vouchers. Moe presents the reader with background information regarding vouchers, and compares and contrasts the results of his study with other research on vouchers such as the PDK polls, Gallup polls, and Public Agenda's 1999 study-On Thin Ice. A self-described supporter of vouchers, Moe successfully accomplishes his intention of "laying out the truth as I know it" by analyzing public opinion and explaining how these findings can be used by both voucher opponents and proponents in mobilizing their respective constituents to block or advance public policy addressing vouchers.

Similar to other studies, Moe's findings indicate that the American public is generally satisfied with its public schools. There is a widespread "public school ideology" which exists across advantaged and disadvantaged populations which will be difficult to overcome by voucher enthusiasts. Additionally, only 35% of the respondents say they have heard of the voucher concept, which clearly presents a significant challenge for voucher supporters: creating and mobilizing an informed public. Moe contends that while there seems to be a lack of information about vouchers, his findings indicate that people do have substance to the way they think about vouchers.

According to Moe, opportunities for increasing support for vouchers may be found among those dissatisfied with public schools on the grounds of social inequity, moral or religious ideology, parental influence, and low quality. While many low income parents and people in disadvantaged districts are becoming less satisfied with low quality schools, Moe surprisingly presents evidence that people with low expectations coupled with less education tend to continue to be somewhat satisfied with low quality schools. However, Moe finds an increased interest in "going private" among those who are less advantaged, and notes a shift among parents and non-parents toward viewing private schools as having positive social consequences and as being in the public's best interests. From his findings and careful analysis, Moe concludes that vouchers appear to have the greatest appeal to those attracted to private schools, those concerned about diversity and social equity, the less advantaged, Catholics, born-again Christians, informed Republicans, and uninformed Democrats. The question remains: Can voucher proponents convert this appeal across very diverse groups into actual political support?

In conclusion, Moe explains how the defeats in the California and Michigan voucher initiatives prove that "the opponent has the advantage" and that for vouchers, "initiatives are no-win propositions. …