Proposals to include broad school voucher programs in the education legislation currently being considered by congress have been successfully stymied by the opposition. The keen interest at The White House to produce a bipartisan education bill combined with the narrowly divided congress assured this outcome.
But an amendment offered this week by Senators Judd Gregg (R-NH) and Tim Hutchinson (R-AR) would create a school choice demonstration program in ten cities around the nation. The way this proposal is structured puts a very simple question before school choice opponents — are they afraid of finding out whether such programs work?
The central arguments offered against school choice are simple and straightforward. First, it emasculates the public schools by depriving them of resources they would otherwise receive and funneling them into vouchers. Second, a federal voucher mandate contradicts the notion of local control of education policy. Third, vouchers are a windfall for the rich because they are not offered in an amount sufficient to cover non-public school tuition. And fourth, studies suggesting the benefits of voucher programs are unreliable.
The Gregg Amendment answers almost all of these objections asserted by the opposition. It funds the cost of the tuition vouchers from funds other than those allocated for education programs so that the public schools are not losing one penny. It offers the prospect of federal support to localities where local officials have decided for themselves to create a voucher program. It requires that these programs be targeted to low-income families served by low-performing schools and insists that the vouchers they are provided with cover the cost of tuition charged by a school. And it demands an independent evaluation of student progress, parental involvement and impact upon public schools.
Admittedly, the one objection left unanswered by the Gregg Amendment is one that animates much of the Jewish community — concerns over public funds being possibly directed to parochial schools. But this is less of a concern outside the Jewish community for a simple reason. As most Americans understand and the Supreme Court has strongly indicated, so long as public funds are directed to parochial entities by private choices, there is no Establishment Clause violation. Thus, the central arguments raised in opposing school choice are on the basis of the policy considerations outlined and answered above.
So why will the vote on the Gregg Amendment be close? Shouldn’t the federal government perform one of its central functions and provide seed money for localities to act as laboratories for democracy? Isn’t it time to stop the cycle of assertion and counter-assertion and finally develop some facts so that we can make a more informed decision as to whether school choice has some benefits or not?
Those who will oppose the Gregg Amendment — a demonstration program of the kind that reasonable policymakers such as Joe Lieberman and other centrist leaders have consistently supported — are conveying a simple message. They would rather hold fast to their assumptions and assertions than allow facts and evidence to be developed and, possibly, found to be wrong. This is unfortunate, and it is no way to educate our children.