Dispatch from the Front Lines of the Voucher Wars

By Barbara Miner

Illustrator: Diana Craft

Illustration: Diana Craft

I’ve covered the voucher movement for more than 15 years, ever since Milwaukee instituted the country’s first program that funneled public tax dollars into vouchers for private schools.

Some days, I can’t decide if it’s been a blessing or a curse. I am sure of one thing: The issues have not fundamentally changed. Now, as then, conservative ideologues are the main financial and theoretical supporters of vouchers. Now, as then, supporters wrap their privatization plans in warm-and-fuzzy rhetoric of concern for poor people. Now, as then, the overall goal remains the same: transforming our system of public education into a highly privatized, marketplace-based array of individual “choices”that ultimately will further privilege the already privileged.

I have dozens of boxes filled with files on vouchers, and I dream of throwing those boxes into a dumpster. But every time I think that, at last, vouchers might fade away — with perhaps a few vestiges in backwaters such as Milwaukee — some conservative ideologue puts forth a new proposal.

Vouchers do not survive on their merits, that much is clear. They survive for one simple reason: Too many corporate and conservative voucher supporters have invested too much money, self-interest, and ideological pride in the issue.

Most important, the stakes are too high. As educational writer Ann Bastian wrote more than 10 years ago in Rethinking Schools, “Privatizing public education is the centerpiece, the grand prize, of the right wing’s overall agenda to dismantle social entitlements and government responsibility for social needs.”

There is no constitutional right in the United States to a job, housing, or healthcare — much as I wish there were. But enshrined in every constitution in every state is a commitment to provide a free and public education to all children.

But “free” and “public” top the list of concepts that are anathema to many rich conservatives.

When I think about the voucher wars, sometimes I get angry, sometimes I get frustrated, and sometimes I get tired. Increasingly, I feel sad. The lessons of history are being forgotten and, as a result, a generation of children is being short-changed.

During the Civil Rights Movement, people died in order to break down Jim Crow segregation and to advance academic excellence and equal opportunity for students of color. Under the voucher program, these worthwhile goals have been replaced with a rigid allegiance to the hyper-individualistic ideology of “choice” — as if somehow the mere existence of options, even highly inadequate options, means that schooling has improved.

To put it more crassly: Relying merely on more choices to guarantee academic quality is like saying if we open a Burger King next to a McDonald’s next to a Popeye’s Chicken, we’ll improve people’s nutrition. It doesn’t address fundamental issues of how to provide poor students of color the same resources, level of curriculum and teacher expertise, and up-to-date facilities that are accorded affluent suburban students (to say nothing of healthcare, family-supporting jobs, and decent housing).

In Milwaukee, almost 15,000 voucher students attend about 125 private schools. No one denies there are some good voucher schools; but there are also outright horror stories. A disturbing number of Milwaukee’s voucher schools, for instance, are in refurbished, cramped storefronts without libraries, gymnasiums, or science labs. One school visited by Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reporters last year used the back alley as a playground. Some schools did not have a discernible curriculum and had only a few books. A significant number had uncertified teachers, some with only a high school diploma.

This is progress?

My Close Encounter of the First Kind

My first encounter with vouchers was in 1990, during the first year of Milwaukee’s voucher program. I was a reporter on the metro desk of the then Milwaukee Journal. The city editor, one of those crusty Irish types who could smell a good story, knew something was happening with this voucher stuff, even if he didn’t know what it all meant. I was sent to one of the voucher schools to do an on-the-scene story.

Little did I know I was stumbling into a mess. A few teachers pulled me aside to talk about problematic relations with the nonprofit agency running the school. The principal made it clear he wanted to talk frankly, but was afraid for his job.

I found out there was a parent meeting that night to explain the turmoil at the school. I returned, notebook in hand, ready to get the story. But a lawyer from one of the city’s most powerful law firms met me at the door. He told me it was a private school, not a public school, and I was not welcome.

I huffed and I puffed and I invoked the name of the almighty media. It didn’t work. I was excluded.

Enraged, I went back to my city editor. Like every Wisconsin reporter, I was familiar with the state’s open meetings and records laws and knew that parent meetings at public schools were open to the public.

My editor talked to the newspaper’s lawyers, who consulted their legal books. It appeared the voucher school was right. Yes, it received public dollars but it was still defined as a private school. Therefore, it most likely did not have to abide by the open meetings and records requirements of public institutions.

It was my first lesson — but certainly not my last — in the abysmal lack of public accountability for voucher schools.

A few years later, while managing editor at Rethinking Schools, I was trying to compile data on test scores at the Catholic schools. The director of education for the archdiocese kept giving me the run-around, complaining she did not have time to go through the data. When I responded that Rethinking Schools had the time to look at the files and photocopy what we needed, she finally blurted out, “Are you kidding? We don’t open our files to anybody.”

Lessons to Be Learned

If pressed, I could come up with a baker’s dozen of lessons learned covering vouchers. I’ll limit myself to five. If you want more information on any of these topics — or on related issues such as tuition tax credits, for-profit schools, or the phony rhetoric that vouchers are a new civil rights cause, go to the Rethinking Schools website’s homepage (www.rethinkingschools.org) and scroll down to the section on Special Article Collections, and click on School Vouchers.

Lesson One: Accountability. The bottom line is voucher schools take public dollars but get to operate by different rules than public schools. In Milwaukee, for instance, voucher schools do not have to publicly release any of their data. They can expel students at will without the public knowing. Nor do they have to hire certified teachers; they don’t even have to hire college graduates if they don’t want. Most disturbing, they do not have to provide the same special education services. In Milwaukee, almost 17 percent of public school students are classified as special ed; the comparable figure for the city’s private schools is about 2 percent.

Lesson Two: Money. Looking at money is the key to understanding the voucher movement. No one denies that rich conservatives bankroll the voucher movement, from the late John Walton of Wal-Mart fame, to the financier Ted Forstmann, to the Lynde and Harry Bradley Foundation (defense contracts), to Richard Mellon Scaife and his family’s foundations (banking and oil money). The list could go on. Equally important, look at the numbers going into K-12 public education — an estimated $455 billion controlled by publicly elected bodies. The private market is drooling to get its hands on more of that money.

Lesson Three: Friends and Enemies. Parents and teachers at voucher schools are not the enemy. By and large, parents do what they think is best for their children without concern for the broader policy issues involved. That’s what parents do everywhere, and I can’t blame them. (I do, however, have more respect for those who admit they are sending their child to a private school because it is a more privileged setting, and that they don’t want their child’s school to have to deal with “problem” children.) While cutting parents and teachers a lot of slack, I have little patience for policymakers who cavalierly dismiss the goals and repercussions of the voucher movement. Policymakers are entrusted with promoting sound public policy and tending to the overall good. Vouchers violate that trust. Finally, I have absolutely no respect for right-wing ideologues and their sycophants who couch their voucher arguments in rhetoric of concern for the poor (and in the same breath argue against national healthcare and publicly supported jobs programs). They know the real aim is privatization and universal vouchers for all. They ought to be ashamed.

Lesson Four: Complacency vs. Cynicism. Shortly after the U.S. Supreme Court upheld the constitutionality of the Cleveland voucher program in 2002, voucher supporters boasted that the dam had been broken and voucher programs would flood the country. That hasn’t happened. Reasons are complex, but one significant factor is that, by and large, Americans support their public schools. (They do, however, want them to work better.) Throughout the country, voucher programs exist only when passed by Republican-dominated legislative bodies. Voucher proposals have been put to public vote in referenda nine times, and consistently have failed by a two-to-one margin. Most recently, they failed miserably in Michigan and California in 2000, the same year George W. Bush was first elected president.

At the same time, we can’t be complacent. Voucher supporters are well funded, focused, and relentless. They also have the advantage of a single issue, which is always easier to win. They don’t have to worry about educational complexities such as special education, qualified teachers, small classes, and building better schools. All they have to do is say what they are against (failing government-monopoly schools) and repeat their seductive mantra that “choice” is the American way.

Lesson Five: The Broader Struggle. Supporters of public education have a more complicated message: We must defend the institution of public education as a necessary bedrock for academic opportunity for all and as an underpinning of our vision of democracy. But we also need to work to overcome the class, racial, and other discriminations that distort so much of public education. We will never defeat the voucher movement if we allow public schools to mimic the worst of private privilege and if we foster public schools that succeed on the basis of whom they refuse to educate. Need I go beyond the urban/suburban divide to highlight one glaring stain on the promise and purpose of public education — one that also highlights the main fault line running through public education: the racial divide?

Yet the urban/suburban divide goes far beyond education. This brings me to an equally important point. Public education will not survive unless we also defeat those who seek to undermine the common good and who idolize hyper-individualistic advancement as the only way to make it in the United States; those who cry “political correctness” to dismiss issues of class and race; those who glorify private over public and who devolve all responsibility to the individual. Proponents of such views are concentrated in the Republican party but have allies on all sides of the political spectrum. (Left-wing libertarians, in fact, sometimes support vouchers for good-sounding but ultimately flawed reasons.)

Parting Advice

Promoting quality public education for all and public responsibility for the common good — with particular attention to issues of race — is ultimately what the voucher controversy is all about.

On my dresser at home, staring at me every morning when I comb my hair, is a postcard I bought during the xenophobia and fear-mongering that surfaced after 9/11. It is a quote by Barbara Lee, an African-American congresswoman from California: “Let us not become the evil that we deplore.” I consider the advice a touchstone, much like the oft-quoted admonition, “Don’t mourn, organize.” The first advice keeps us honest. The second reminds us of the nuts and bolts of what it takes to win.

Who knows how the voucher wars will unfold. But if we follow these two pieces of advice, we can’t go wrong.

Barbara Miner, former managing editor of Rethinking Schools, writes a regular column for the magazine.