Academic journal article Policy Review

Education's Long March: The Choice Revolution Shifts to the States

Academic journal article Policy Review

Education's Long March: The Choice Revolution Shifts to the States

Article excerpt

After 12 years of Republican rhetoric promoting school vouchers, a Democrat - championed by the teachers' unions that regard private school choice as unmitigated evil - wins the White House.

In California, a voucher initiative goes down to defeat by a margin of more than two to one.

Ten years after vouchers moved to die center of the education debate, just one state has pushed through a pilot program, limited to one percent of the students in one city.

Have we heard the death knell for private school choice?

Patient Persistence

Not at all. In fact, the silence in Washington is deceiving, masking a groundswell of pro-voucher activity and advocacy in cities and states across the country. Even after last year's landslide loss in California - as the National Education Association's (NEA) morning-after press release trumpeted, the nineteenth defeat for a voucher initiative since 1966 - prospects for new voucher programs have never been better. The NEA, in spite of its post-ballot bravado, is on the defensive; like General Lee's army in the final year of the Civil War, it may be winning all the way to Appomattox.

The reason: Even in losing efforts, the arguments for vouchers are beginning to have a cumulative effect. Public schools aren't getting any better, and even more important, the hypocrisy of anti-choice forces is beginning to penetrate the public mind. Chelsea Clinton's enrollment at Washington's Sidwell Friends School was a high-profile confirmation of the strong predilection for private schooling on the part of parents who, in their professional and political lives, oppose private school choice for others. This practice goes well beyond the liberal elite; in a number of cities, public school teachers are twice as likely as the average family to send their own children to private schools. As Polly Williams - the black Milwaukee welfare mother turned state legislator who championed the country's only court-sanctioned voucher program - observes: "Bill Clinton shouldn't be the only person in public housing who gets to send his kid to private school."

Observers who wish to understand the future of the voucher movement must look beyond the state-wide referenda campaigns, which have produced a string of landslide losses, to the small but unmistakable signs of the movement's vitality. In the few places where small gains have been made, private school choice takes tenacious root. Ironically for imperial Republicans grown used to a perpetual hold on the presidency, the progress of private school choice may just revive one's faith in Federalism. The prospect of achieving radical ends by incremental means is emerging - provided pro-voucher forces cultivate patience and persistence.

Clinton Backpedaling

Polly Williams often waves around copies of a letter written in October 1990, one month after her Parental Choice Program began. "I'm fascinated by that proposal ...." writes her correspondent. "I'm concerned that the traditional Democratic Party establishment has not given you more encouragement. The visionary is rarely embraced by the status quo."

The letter's author, then-Governor Bill Clinton, soon learned that private school choice was politically incorrect. Chastened by presidential ambition and the political realities of a potent public education lobby that would supply one in eight delegates to the Democratic National Convention - along with an army of door-knockers, envelope-stuffers and, ultimately, voters in the 1992 Presidential campaign - Clinton did an about-face on vouchers. On education policy, his New Democrat centrism took the form of support for "public-school only" choice. Yet support for even this half-measure evaporated upon entering the Oval Office; in Clinton's first speech to the NEA as president, he was already backpedaling. Choice - even the tepid public school choice candidate Clinton had talked about - was not mentioned. …

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