A long, slow revolution

Despite the U.S. Supreme Court's decision on school vouchers, one expert says dramatic change could be decades away.

By Damien Cave
Published June 29, 2002 11:56PM (EDT)

A landmark decision Thursday by a bitterly divided U.S. Supreme Court validated the use of publicly funded school vouchers that allow students to attend religious and other private schools -- and in doing so, it rekindled a fierce national debate over education. In voting 5-4 to find that vouchers are legal, the high court settled one longstanding controversy, only to spawn others that will play out in the months and years ahead.

Will the injection of free-market ideals like competition ruin or save public education? Who gains and who loses from a voucher-based system? And will such a system undermine the hope that public education can be a fundamental force of equality and democracy?

These are just a few of the questions on the minds of parents and educators all over the country. But in the explosive debate that has followed the court's ruling, one question is more immediate: Will the decision inspire only debate, or will it inspire systemic change?

The Supreme Court decision, after all, did not mandate the use of vouchers. The justices only ruled that the voucher system of Cleveland, Ohio -- which provides up to $2,250 each to families of about 3,700 low-income students -- is constitutional. The onus, the court decided, is now on states. But only Ohio, Florida and Wisconsin have experimented with vouchers; 27 states have rejected them, with California voters twice defeating voucher initiatives. Nationwide, polls show that more people oppose them than favor them. In such a climate, does the Supreme Court decision even matter?

Terry Moe is in a unique position to answer this question. A senior fellow at Hoover Institution and professor of political science at Stanford, Moe is the author of "Schools, Vouchers and the American Public." He is a vocal proponent of vouchers -- "it's my life," he says -- but unlike many other voucher-related tomes, Moe's 2001 book is not so much an attempt to shift public opinion as it is an analysis of it. Most of the book grows out of his 1995 survey of more than 4,000 people.

Moe discovered that at the time, 65 percent of Americans said they hadn't heard of vouchers, though even then, the debate in education circles had been long-running. As a result, most voucher initiatives and legislation, he concluded, faced a tough fight. But a major factor was constitutionality, and now that obstacle has been cleared.

In a telephone interview, Salon questioned Moe about the real-world effects of the Supreme Court ruling.

The Supreme Court decision clears up constitutional questions about voucher programs, but will the legal certainty necessarily lead to a radical change in the landscape of American education? How will the decision actually affect the country's education system?

It will have a big effect over the long haul. In the short run, what we'll see is enhanced legitimacy for vouchers and greater interest in vouchers among some citizens and some policy makers, who had been considering moving in this direction but had some doubt on constitutional grounds. So I think it will give impetus to the voucher movement and will give rise to more proposals. But the power alignments will be the same, as they have been for years. And here, the single most important factor is that the teachers' unions are far and away the most powerful force in the politics of education. They are dedicated to the defeat of vouchers under any and all circumstances. For them, vouchers are a survival issue, and they will be opposed to vouchers no matter what -- even if we were able to show, with 100 percent certainty, that vouchers are good for kids, that they promote better schools. The unions would still be opposed to them. They will use their power to defeat them.

More specifically, the Supreme Court said that states now have the right to establish vouchers. Right now, only Florida, Wisconsin and Ohio have them, but which states do you think will experiment first? Where will the first voucher proposals appear?

Legislators can bring this up anywhere, and there are even some legislators in California who are determined to bring it up. They were waiting for this to happen. But the fact is, the Legislature in California is controlled by the Democrats, and we have a Democratic government -- and they're all pledged to not even consider vouchers. The unions would never allow them to do it.

But couldn't the decision be a sea change, the kind of thing that would even change the minds of Democrats in California?

I wouldn't go that far; definitely it is a sea change. I think the legitimacy issue is a big one. People are going to view vouchers in a different way from here on out. But in a political system where there are so many veto points in any legislative process, it's easy to block. So if a group has a lot of power, as the teachers unions do, they find it very easy to block. Almost all the time, they can block these proposals from becoming law.

Also, in initiative campaigns, most Americans are not very familiar with vouchers. They're basically positively inclined when vouchers are explained to them but they're not very familiar with the issue, and as a result, during an initiative campaign, the unions can spend millions of dollars on media blitzes that convince people that vouchers could undermine the public schools. This makes people uncertain, and they vote no. The unions hold a lot of cards here.

It sounds like you think that the Supreme Court decision won't actually have much of an effect.

No, I don't think that. I just think it's going to be a slow process. I think the unions are going to lose in the long run. We're going to have lots of voucher programs over the long haul. But in the short term, the unions, because of their huge power advantage, are going to defeat almost all proposals.

What do you mean by "the long run"? At what point will the unions start to really lose on this issue?

They've already lost in Milwaukee, in Cleveland, a couple times in Florida. They will have other losses in the immediate future, the next couple years. And these things accumulate. So when I look ahead, I'm thinking 10, 20, 30 or 40 years. It's just going to take time for them to lose their grip on this.

How will these programs look when they're first enacted? Will they be state- or citywide, or more targeted?

In the beginning, they'll all be targeted.

Toward whom?

The poor -- low-income minority parents who live in cities, and who are stuck right now with the worst schools.

How broad will the mandate for these people be? Do you think there will be any limits on religion, and how much money will parents likely get in voucher form?

Voucher programs can be designed in a variety of different ways. They tend to get stereotyped by the critics, but the fact is that almost everything is a variable. So, the size of the voucher: That can vary. It can be $1,000, it can be $10,000. In a state like New Jersey, they're spending $11,000 a kid. You can give people $11,000 vouchers. In Milwaukee, the vouchers are $5,000 but the public schools are spending $10,000 a kid.

You can have rules that the private schools have to abide by. They can have to have, say, random admissions. You can have rules for curriculum, for teacher qualifications, for student testing. These again are all variables. Some states or districts might want to have these things, and others might not want to have them. Also there will be tax credit arrangements as well. These things will probably involve giving tax credits to businesses, and the money will go into a private foundation and the private foundation will give out vouchers. In those cases, you might not have a system which rules so much as private scholarships that allow kids to go to school on money that would otherwise have gone to the government but never did.

So I think, through a variety of means -- not just voucher systems -- we're going to have much more choice, with a lot more kids going private. And in the beginning, all of them will be poor.

So what's the endgame? Are public schools destined for oblivion?

No, what we'll end up with is a mixed system. Think about the Postal Service. They carry packages, but so does UPS and Federal Express. We can send our packages through the Postal Service, or through UPS or Federal Express -- it's up to us. So the Postal Service is big but it's not as big as it would be -- right? -- if it weren't for UPS and Federal Express. They siphon off some of the business, a lot of the business actually. And it's not written in concrete or stone how big the Postal Service ought to be, or what percentage of the packages it ought to carry. I think that's the way it will be with the school system. A lot of people 20 to 30 years from now will still want to send their kids to regular public schools. But a lot more people will want to send their children to private schools on vouchers, or to charter schools. It will be mixed system that's partly a governmental system and partly a choice-driven system that relies on markets.

What about the religious aspect? Do you think those who focus on this issue are overreacting? How much will vouchers become forms of religious sponsorship?

First of all, ordinary Americans don't freak out about this at all. This is really a matter that the intelligentsia wrings its hands over; and in particular, it's a matter that liberal intellectuals are especially concerned with. But they're the only ones that really want to draw a strict line.

But it seems clear that vouchers will run afoul not just of liberals. After all, Bush's attempt to encourage faith-based initiatives largely failed to be adopted because there was a realization that whatever money they set aside would have to go everyone, including Muslims and members of New Age religions -- groups that most Christian-Coalition Republicans tend to fear or disagree with. So in this case, it's possible that vouchers would be used to fund a Madrasa that is being investigated by Ashcroft's Department of Justice. What makes you think that conservatives are going to go for this?

These are the kinds of things that can be handled. Basically, what happened [with faith-based initiatives] was that the Democrats weren't going to go along with it, and it got stopped.

What do you mean by "handled"?

Well, you ultimately are going to have rules that determine who gets what. But in a choice system, where the money is going to parents -- and where you can have basic rules about, say, not teaching hatred -- then it's OK. There are going to be Muslim schools and as long as those schools are not teaching hatred, then they should be fine.

How have the programs that are already in place developed on this issue? And has there been anything that's surprised you, in terms of the way the system reacts to vouchers?

These are still small pilot programs. They're just barely voucher programs. For a long time, the Milwaukee program had less than 1,000 kids in a district that has more than 100,000 kids. There were very few schools participating in the program; three-fourths of the kids were in just three private schools. Everyone's looking at Milwaukee as though it's supposed to demonstrate whether vouchers work or not but most of the kids are in three schools. Who cares if those kids achieve more than the kids in the public schools? That's not a test of whether competition works or not. So as long as these programs are as small as they are, you really can't tell that much from them. I wouldn't draw that many conclusions from them. The importance of them is that they're a foot in the door, a way to get people to see that we can do this. These programs are up and running, they work fine and there's no real downside risk. Let's just do it.

But isn't it also too soon to know whether there's a downside risk? Critics have repeatedly argued that vouchers will hurt the neediest schools and students. Could this turn out to be a more accurate prediction?

Look, in many of these urban systems, the schools are failing. In Cleveland, well over half the kids never graduate from high school. A lot of them can't read or do basic math. The Cleveland school system is ruining their futures. If we don't do something radical and big now, those kids are going to be lost.

And yet, you don't think that this argument will be adopted on a wide scale ...

This is what I think is going to happen. There will be more proposals in legislatures around the country because of [this Supreme Court decision]. There will be more support for vouchers as a result of this. It's not going to be a groundswell of ordinary people; they're not that familiar with it, so it will be at the legislative level. The unions will fight it. The unions will win most of these, almost all of these. But they will lose some fights and the ones that they lose will then accumulate over time. And they will snowball. It's going to take a long time but in the meantime, the civil rights groups are going to move. Because these are their constituents: poor, minority parents in cities. These parents are very supportive of vouchers. They're in failing schools and they need help. The civil rights groups like the NAACP are not representing them on this. They're out of sync with their own people. And there are young blacks who are rising up now, and who are providing leadership for these people. If the NAACP doesn't move, it's going to be displaced. Furthermore, over time, the older leaders of the NAACP are going to move out and they're going to be replaced by these younger people. And these people are very open to vouchers. They see vouchers as a way of empowering poor people. So within 10 years, the civil rights groups will move on this. And when they do, it's over. The unions will then be on the fringe; the civil rights groups will then play a major role in designing voucher programs. And the world will look very different.

Damien Cave

Damien Cave is an associate editor at Rolling Stone and a contributing writer at Salon.

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