How Choice Will Prevail

Monday, July 30, 2001

School Choice

The latest news is that vouchers are on the wane. Voucher initiatives were dealt big defeats in California and Michigan in last fall’s elections, a federal appeals court recently ruled that the Cleveland voucher program is unconstitutional, and the Bush administration, facing an evenly split Congress, has thrown vouchers over the side in order to make progress elsewhere.

What, in fact, is the future of school choice in this country? Anyone who wants a good answer would be wise not to pay much attention to the news stories of the day. They may be right about the basic facts and the prevailing mood among policymakers. But the issue of school choice is more than just a current event. It is rooted in the substance of American society—in mediocre schools, in the crisis of inner-city education, in the glaring inequities of class and race, in the sheer popularity of parental choice—and it is not going to disappear because a few developments in the near term go badly. This is a long-term issue and understanding it requires a long-term perspective.

We need to begin with a sobering reality: major changes in the structure of American education cannot come about easily or quickly. Choice and competition are inherently threatening to the established interests that run the current system, particularly the teachers unions—affecting, possibly in big ways, the number of people the system employs, the amount of money it controls, the prospects for collective bargaining, and much more. When it comes to vouchers, especially, these groups have incentives to resist with all the power they can muster. And the teachers unions are perhaps the most powerful interest groups in all of American politics.

The issue of school choice is rooted in American society itself—in mediocre schools, in the crisis of inner-city education, in the glaring inequities of class and race, in the sheer popularity of parental choice—and it is not going to disappear because a few developments in the near term go badly.

Their power to resist, moreover, is greatly magnified by the very nature of American government. Our institutions were designed, via myriad checks and balances, to make the passage of new laws very difficult and to make blocking them very easy. In the usual policy-making process, choice advocates must successfully make it past all the hurdles that stand in their way—subcommittees, full committees, and floor votes in two houses of the legislature, plus executive vetoes, court decisions, and more—while the teachers unions and their allies simply have to win at any one of these points to block. The opponents of choice have enormous built-in advantages as a result and can almost always stop major changes from becoming law.

Given this context, the struggle for school choice is sure to generate a great many political losses, at least in these early years while opponents are at their most powerful. This is entirely normal and a necessary stage in the process of change. Progress must come through small victories, usually won at rare times and places when the political stars line up just right. Such lineups are partly beyond the movement’s control. But not entirely. The movement can win small victories more often by taking advantage of opportunities as they arise, making moderate proposals, and putting together diverse political coalitions.

When it comes to vouchers, the teachers unions have incentives to resist with all the power they can muster. And they are perhaps the most powerful interest groups in all of American politics.

For decades after Milton Friedman first introduced the voucher idea, the budding choice movement was essentially a conservative phenomenon, driven by the ideals of people who firmly believed in the power of markets to improve the schools. The connection between choice and conservatism made good sense and was crucial to the movement’s emergence as a political force. Nonetheless, conservatism alone was too narrow a political base to overcome the blocking power of the established interests. If the movement wanted to bring about change, it first had to change itself.

Milwaukee made this possible. The 1990 adoption of the Milwaukee voucher program—a small pilot program limited to children from low-income families—is the single most important event in the struggle for school choice. It was notable, of course, as the first political victory for vouchers. But it also generated a dramatic change in the guiding ideals and internal makeup of the choice movement as a whole, and it set the "new" movement on a very different and far more promising path.

Since 1990, most of the movement’s efforts have focused on providing vouchers to poor and minority families in the inner cities: families who are concentrated in low-performing schools, trapped by the searing inequities of the current system, and value vouchers as a means of escape. The new arguments for vouchers have less to do with free markets than with social equity. And they have less to do with theory than with the commonsense notions that disadvantaged kids should be given immediate opportunities to get out of bad schools and that experiments, pilot programs, and novel approaches are good ideas in urban systems that are clearly failing and for which the downside risk is virtually nil.

This shift has put the opponents of vouchers in an extremely awkward position. As liberals, they claim to be (and usually are) champions of the poor. But on the voucher issue, they flatly refuse to represent their own constituents—and indeed, find themselves fighting against poor families who are trying to escape conditions that liberals agree are deplorable. In doing so, moreover, liberals have essentially pushed the urban poor into an educational alliance with conservatives. And this alliance, whose arguments for equity and practicality resonate strongly with a much broader audience, is sometimes powerful enough to bring about political victory—even in a context heavily stacked against it.

The single most important event in the struggle for school choice? The 1990 adoption of the Milwaukee voucher program—a small pilot program limited to children from low-income families.

This is the alliance that won in Milwaukee. It won again in creating the nation’s second voucher program in Cleveland (1995), in vastly expanding the Milwaukee program (1995), and in creating the first state-level voucher program in Florida (1998). And it came close—which is saying a lot, under the circumstances—in many state legislatures, as well as in the federal government (where Congress passed a low-income program for Washington, D.C., only to have it vetoed by President Clinton). Outside politics, the same alliance has been responsible for creating a vast system of privately funded voucher programs—programs that opponents are powerless to block—and has put vouchers in the hands of more than 60,000 disadvantaged children. Slowly but increasingly, vouchers are becoming part of the everyday lives of poor families and the everyday experiences of urban communities. People are telling their friends and neighbors; policymakers and other elites are watching and listening. Things are changing.

Opponents would like to believe that they can stop these developments and that the recent bad news for the movement is an indication that the end is near. As I’ve said, however, bad news is par for the course. Any energetic movement that is making progress is going to suffer many defeats along the way. Moreover, I think opponents will look back at the current period as the lull before the storm because forces are at work that should actually boost the movement’s progress considerably.

The key development, which could happen within five years but could take a decade or more, is that the NAACP and other civil rights groups will come around and support vouchers for the disadvantaged. Such a claim may seem fanciful because these groups have been vociferous in their opposition thus far. Their opposition, however, has created serious problems for them, for their own constituents are the ones who are trapped in our nation’s worst schools, and these same constituents are the nation’s strongest supporters of vouchers. The leaders are out of step with their followers.

Up to now they have shown little sign of shifting course. Most of these leaders have been around since the early years of the civil rights movement, and they have emerged with a firm set of convictions—among them, a belief in government (including the public schools) and a great skepticism of markets. School choice, in their view, simply leads to segregation. Younger blacks have had very different formative experiences, and they are much more inclined to see choice as a means of empowering minorities and promoting equity and opportunity. These leaders-in-waiting are already causing trouble in the lower ranks of the civil rights groups. And if the current generation of leaders doesn’t come around to vouchers on its own, the shift will take place when the new generation comes to power. In the meantime, new groups are arising—notably, the Black Alliance for Educational Options—to connect with black constituents on the voucher issue. And this competition from within the black community is likely to give the mainline groups added incentives to make a move.

Civil rights groups will not be the only ones to abandon the teachers unions. The most visible sign of things to come is that certain high-profile liberals have begun to peel off and announce their support for targeted voucher plans. In recent years, the converts include the New Republic, the Washington Post, former secretary of Labor Robert Reich, civil rights activist Andrew Young, and former secretary of Health, Education, and Welfare Joseph Califano. Their support for vouchers arises out of liberal principles and concerns. They do not rave about markets. They see vouchers as an experimental but sensible means of providing much-needed assistance to disadvantaged kids and of trying to shake up and improve a status quo that in many urban areas is inequitable and resistant to change.

There is evidence, then, that the opponents of vouchers are beginning to lose the intellectual and moral arguments within their own coalition. Important as this is, however, it will take more than the force of ideas to convince most Democratic officeholders to turn against the teachers unions. And there is little mystery why. The unions wield tremendous clout in national, state, and local elections, and their presence in virtually every electoral district in the country has allowed them to become the most powerful interest group behind the Democratic Party. Few Democrats are willing to buck them on an issue as threatening to union interests as vouchers.

The new arguments for vouchers have less to do with vague, abstract theories than with commonsense notions that disadvantaged kids should be given immediate opportunities to get out of bad schools.

Still, this era of lockstep Democratic compliance cannot last. Many Democrats, like the civil rights groups, find their opposition acutely uncomfortable: they have constituents who are disadvantaged, whose children are in bad schools, and who are strongly interested in vouchers. At the mass level, in fact, vouchers could very easily be a Democratic issue—but Democratic politicians have been unable to treat it as one. Were it not for the unions, many Democrats, especially those representing inner-city areas, would simply line up with their constituents.

Eventually, this is what will happen. The shift to vouchers by prominent liberals will pave the way, making it easier for some Democrats to justify their defection. But the union grip will really start to loosen when the civil rights groups begin to make the switch themselves. This will change the balance of raw political power and with it the incentives of Democratic politicians to vote their constituencies. Increasingly, the unions will be left alone, out on the fringe.

These changes may take decades to be realized. The new system that evolves, moreover, will fall well short of what some of the purists in the choice movement might want. Free markets will not reign, the public system will not be privatized, and vouchers may never be extended to all children. Given the checks and balances inherent in American government, the changes that actually come about will tend to be those that new and future recruits to vouchers—urban activists, civil rights groups, prominent liberals, urban Democrats—are willing to embrace. These groups hold the balance of power, and they will be using that power to aid the disadvantaged, promote social equity, and ensure that government continues to play an important role in education.

Slowly but increasingly, vouchers are becoming part of the everyday lives of poor families and the everyday experiences of urban communities. People are telling their friends and neighbors—and policymakers are watching and listening.

Vouchers are not the only choice-based reforms that we can expect. For similar reasons, there will also be thousands of new charter schools offering choice and competition within the public system; lots of innovative contracting arrangements, in which private firms (such as Edison) are engaged to run schools; and various kinds of tax credits that enable more families to go private. The new system will be a blend of all these (and more) and is best thought of as a mixed system of government and markets—a system that involves far more choice, competition, and privatization than the current system does, but maintains a key role for government in helping ensure that these market forces work as desired and that key social values—especially equity for the disadvantaged—are protected and promoted.

There is one wild card in all this. The Supreme Court will soon decide whether it is constitutional for voucher systems to include religious schools. It seems unlikely that the Court will offer a judgment that is wholly prohibitive. But if it does, or if it places significant restrictions on the conditions for religious school participation, this would surely limit the pace of the changes described above. The reason is that the vast majority of schools in today’s private sector are religious, and thus the supply of schools allowed to accept vouchers would be very limited. Newly established voucher systems would have to start out much smaller, and the numbers could increase only as the supply of nonsectarian schools increased. The entire process of reform would be much slower, and it could lead in the end to an equilibrium in which the private sector attracts a somewhat smaller share of public students than it otherwise would.

It will take more than the force of ideas to convince most Democratic officeholders to turn against the teachers unions. Few Democrats are willing to buck them on an issue as threatening to union interests as vouchers.

Again, an extreme move by the Court seems unlikely. But if it happens, it will not change the fundamentals that are driving the politics of reform, and it will not secure the status quo against change. Instead of 20 or 30 years, the process could take 40 or 50 years. Or longer. But the result is likely to be the same: the transformation of American education.