Privately Funded Vouchers Proliferate

Report From a National ‘Pro-Voucher’ Conference

By Barbara Miner

INDIANAPOLIS— If you live in New York, Boston, San Francisco, Denver, St. Louis or Minneapolis, your area is one of 25 cities targeted by conservative forces who hope to establish a network of privately funded school voucher plans as part of efforts to make private school “choice” the dominant school reform in this country.

At a pro-voucher national conference in Indianapolis Nov. 13-14, organizers laid out a sophisticated strategy of how people can build public and corporate support for privately funded vouchers.

The first such program was started in Indianapolis in August 1991 by J. Patrick Rooney, chairman of the board of the Golden Rule Insurance Company. Funded by corporate donations, the program provides half the tuition, with a maximum voucher of $800, to low-income parents to attend a private or parochial school.

Such plans, bolstered by support from conservative think tanks and foundations, have now spread to Milwaukee, San Antonio, Texas, and Atlanta. By the fall of 1994, organizers hope to establish 25 privately funded voucher plans in order “to provide the requisite momentum to a national debate on educational choice,” according to an organizing manual distributed at the conference.

Privately funded programs may, on the surface, seem only peripherally connected with efforts to institute publicly funded “choice” plans that substitute the marketplace for our system of public schools.

However, key players in the private voucher network stressed that these private plans are an invaluable tactic in their strategic battle to institute universal “choice” plans that use public tax dollars to fund religious and non-sectarian private schools.

Matt Glavin, president of the conservative Georgia Public Policy Foundation which has organized a privately funded voucher system in Atlanta, explained it this way at the Indianapolis conference: “The Georgia Public Policy Foundation has an agenda, and it’s not hidden…. It would be a dream of mine personally, and a goal of mine, to have the Georgia foundation shut down in four years because the legislature has adopted a voucher program.”

The conference was billed as a “how to” get-together for organizers. It was sponsored by The Educational Choice Charitable Trust, which administers the Indianapolis program, in cooperation with three conservative groups: the State Policy Network, the Philanthropy Roundtable, and the Texas Public Policy Foundation. More than 100 people from across the country attended, including major players in the “choice” movement such as organizers of the California and Colorado referenda for universal vouchers, the head of the U.S. Department of Education’s Center on Choice, representatives of right-wing think tanks and foundations, business representatives, and local organizers hoping to start private voucher plans in their cities.

While the conference concentrated on private vouchers, it provided an intriguing glimpse into the internal workings of the broader “choice” movement. It also underscored important lessons for defenders of a public system of schools. While the “choice” movement is dominated by conservative, free-market ideologues, it would be foolish to deny that the movement feeds on legitimate, grass-roots discontent with public schools, particularly among people of color in urban areas. If opponents of private school “choice” are to be successful, they must intensify their efforts to develop a broad-based movement that goes beyond unions and includes parents and community people and that addresses the specific problems of urban schools. There’s nothing the right-wing loves more than discrediting opposition to choice as the self-interest of the unions and the “educational establishment,” and dismissing calls to increase resources for urban schools as mere requests for more of the taxpayers’ hard-earned money.

The conference took place just a little over a week after the election of Bill Clinton, who has opposed public money for private schools, and after the defeat of a Colorado referendum that would have provided from $2,100 to $2,500 in taxpayer money to parents who wanted to send their children to a private or parochial school or to educate them at home. As a result, the elections were a key topic.

Conference organizers appeared un-daunted by the defeat of George Bush, who Institute in Washington, D.C., told the conference. “Ultimately,” he added, “education is a state and local issue….If anything, this may galvanize local supporters to understand that the leadership is not going to come from Washington and that if they’re going to do anything about this it’s going to have to be done on the state and local level.”

Kevin Teasley, director of a California voucher initiative set for the June 1994 ballot, said that California voucher supporters expect Clinton to waffle on the “choice” issue and stay out of the California debate on the grounds that it is a state, not federal, issue. Teasley said voucher supporters were already working on key Clinton advisors to convince them that the president-elect should soften his opposition to private school “choice.” The California initiative is similar to the Colorado referendum and is considered the next big test for supporters of publicly funded vouchers for private and religious schools.

The Private Voucher Movement

The private school “choice” movement has several different emphases. One focus is pressuring state legislatures to pass publicly funded voucher programs — attempts which are proliferating but still meeting with limited success. There are also statewide referenda, the two most notable being the Colorado initiative that lost at the polls this November, and the California vote set for June 1994. Some “choice” advocates, such as Clint Bolick of the conservative Institute for Justice, are filing lawsuits calling for private-school tuition vouchers on the grounds that failing public schools violate state constitutional guarantees to educational opportunity.

There are also for-profit schemes such as the Edison Project started by Whittle Communications and headed by former Yale President Benno Schmidt. Rodney Ferguson of the Edison Project told the Indianapolis conference that while the Edison project has no official position on choice, it is convinced that “choice” initiatives will only increase and, sooner or later, become a reality across the country. “The genius of our project is that the principals [i.e., key investors] were able to see this trend more clearly,” Ferguson said. Teasley, meanwhile, noted that Chris Whittle of Whittle Communications is doing “what any smart businessman would do.” He is staying out of the political debate putting his money into research and development, and creating a base “so when choice comes down the pike, he’s got a choice to offer.”

Privately funded voucher plans, however, have become the most successful tactic of the school “choice” movement.

The Indianapolis program, considered the standard by which private voucher programs are measured, was started some 16 months ago by Golden Rule with a $1.2 million donation after the Indiana legislature defeated a voucher bill. Under the program, a child whose family qualifies for the federal free or reduced-price lunch program may receive half of the tuition of a private or parochial school, up to $800. The program was announced two weeks before the start of the 1991-92 school year and organizers were immediately swamped with applications. By November, 1992, some 925 children were receiving vouchers and 395 were on the waiting list.

The program was the brainchild of Rooney, a contradictory “maverick” who is both a staunch Republican and a member of the Indiana Civil Liberties Union. A devout Catholic who attends a predominantly African-American parish, Rooney also has a long-standing concern with discrimination. Rooney, for example, had Golden Rule sue the Educational Testing Service and the Illinois Department of Insurance in 1976, accusing them of using culturally biased tests to exclude minorities, older people and non-college educated people from entering the insurance business. Golden Rule won the suit and used the money to help form FairTest, a group in Cambridge, Mass. that is a leading advocate for reforming educational testing in this country.

Rooney stresses that his private voucher plan has one main goal: to help low-income kids have the same choice in schools that middle-class and white kids have.

While Rooney has stated in media reports that he has no intention of undercutting the public school system, his speech to the conference had a different emphasis. He said he had concluded over the years that “the problems are not fixable in the urban [school] systems” and he criticized efforts that focused on the public schools and the “perpetuation of a system that is not working.”

Rooney also emphasized the enormous public relations strength of the privately funded voucher program, saying it had done more good in terms of the company image than anything Golden Rule had ever done. “We could not have anticipated ahead of time the positive public relations benefit…,” he said. “I can tell you, the public relations benefits of this are immense.”

The evolution of the privately funded voucher program is a fascinating look at how seasoned organizers can spot a politically useful movement — and move in to try to take control. The Indianapolis program remains identified with Rooney, who seems sincerely concerned with discrimination and the education of children of color. But conservative, ideologically entrenched think tanks and foundations now dominate the private voucher movement.

The three other main private voucher programs are all closely identified with conservative foundations or think tanks. In Milwaukee, the prominent and conservative Bradley Foundation — headed by free-market ideologue Michael Joyce — is donating $1.5 million to get a local program going. In San Antonio, the program was initiated by the Texas Public Policy Foundation and in Atlanta it was initiated by the Georgia Public Policy Foundation. (In all cases, separate non-profit groups have been set up to run the program, in part because this allows corporations to make tax-deductible contributions. If the voucher were given directly to the parents, it would not be tax deductible.)

Teasley, of the California voucher initiative, was one of several people who explicitly linked the success of privately funded vouchers to hopes for a universal system of publicly funded vouchers for private schools. Perhaps most important, the private voucher system, in which applicants have exceeded the number of vouchers, can be used to argue that the public is clamoring for “choice.”

“When you see the number of children lining up for the financial opportunity to choose a different school, that’s a very powerful message …,” Teasley told the conference. “That message cannot be shot down rather easily by our opponents. It’s worth its weight in gold.”

Teasley also argued that despite its success, a private voucher program is limited by its reliance on corporate largesse. The long-term strategy, Teasley said, must focus on publicly funded, universal voucher systems.

Teasley said “choice” advocates in California hope to institute private voucher plans in both Southern and Northern California and to use the response to argue that true choice can only be implemented through publicly supported vouchers.

Tom Tancredo, a U.S. Department of Education official who helped organize the failed Colorado initiative, also said he planned to go back to Denver to start a private voucher plan. Like Teasley, he saw it as a tactic to build support for publicly funded vouchers. Referring to Golden Rule type initiatives he said, “All they are, really, are simply pump primers.”

Differences and Problems

Several differences emerged at the conference. Should voucher plans be limited to low-income children or would that alienate middle-class supporters who might wonder, “What’s in it for me?” Should public schools be included in private voucher plans, as they are in San Antonio and Atlanta? How explicitly should organizers describe their program?

One of the dilemmas facing the conference involved race. While many of those taking part in the private voucher plans are children of color — and many of the programs are explicitly presented as a chance to give minority and low-income kids the same opportunities as middle-class whites — the movement is dominated by conservative whites associated with the right wing. At the Indianapolis conference, the only identifiable person of color, except for invited speakers, was a African-American man from Indianapolis who showed up for a few hours on Saturday.

Several participants admitted they weren’t quite sure how to resolve this problem. Many prominent African-Americans have been vocal in their opposition to “choice,” in part because the movement historically has been associated with segregation forces, in part because they fear that a successful “choice” movement would mean that large numbers of minority children would be trapped in even worse public schools than is now the case, in part because African-Americans are for the first time gaining positions of authority in many public school districts only to find that many private school “choice” supporters don’t even support the concept of a public school system, and in part because the private “choice” movement is run primarily by white Republicans. As one conference participant from the conservative Indiana Policy Institute said privately, “You’ve got to get white Republicans out of this debate, and get the Polly Williamses and recognizable liberal Democrats in.” Williams, an African-American representative in the Wisconsin legislature who sponsored the bill instituting Milwaukee’s publicly funded “choice” experiment, has become the darling of the conservative speaker circuit. She spoke at the conference and underscored her importance to the “choice” movement. As a Black single mother, she said, “I can do and say a lot of things that you can’t.”

“Choice” organizers also face the problem that many white suburbanites, while they might not admit it publicly, are opposed to “choice” because they don’t want inner-city children of color coming to their schools. Tancredo said this was one of the problems in the Colorado referendum, although it never was discussed

openly because people did not want to be branded as racist. Glavin of the Georgia Public Policy Foundation said some of the people he found hardest to convince were the middle and upper middle class whites in the suburbs. “I had one senior executive, with one of the largest corporations in Atlanta, say to me: ‘Now look Matt, do you really want those kids going to school with your kids?’,” Glavin said.

David Boaz of the conservative CATO Institute, was the most explicit in terms of one possible way of dealing with this problem. The opposition of suburbanites, he said, “may be an argument to try a choice plan that only applies within the confines of cities over one million, or something like that. So that if you’re doing it [a publicly funded voucher plan] in Michigan, it only applies within Detroit and the voucher can only be cashed in at a school within the city limits of Detroit, public or private.”

Private voucher plans automatically provide a way to undercut the potential opposition of well-to-do whites. By limiting the maximum scholarship and by forcing low-income parents to pay half the tuition, the plans prevent low-income kids from attending the more elite private schools. For example, say a family has two children attending a school with a tuition of $2,000, and the voucher pays a maximum of $800. That means the parent must find $2,400 to pay the rest of the tuition — a hefty sum for a three-person family that can have a maximum weekly income of $397 in order to qualify for the program. In Milwaukee, suburbanite fears are eased because children in the program must attend a school in the city of Milwaukee. The geographical limit also targets money to those religious schools with the most financial difficulties.

Lack of Accountability

To its credit, the Milwaukee program is the only one which explicitly calls upon participating schools to “educate students from diverse cultural backgrounds” and to have “open enrollment and non-discriminatory policies” — although this does not necessarily include children with special physical or learning needs. Nor is it clear that there is any follow-up in Milwaukee to ensure that schools meet these minimal standards. In general, advocates of privately funded vouchers have required little to no accountability from participating schools. As Timothy Ehrgott of the Indianapolis program proudly stated: “Our involvement st ps at the school door.”

All conference participants in Indianapolis received a 181-page manual on how to organize a private voucher plan. Produced by the Texas Public Policy Foundation, the manual includes everything from sample press releases, to tips on organizing, to articles of incorporation, to a software program for a database to administer the vouchers.

The most interesting parts of the manual provided organizing tips. One key piece of advice is, secrecy above all.

“Every program would do well to conduct its entire developmental stage in total secrecy,” the manual cautions. “The importance of this can not be over-stressed. It would be quite unfortunate for word to get out into the community prior to your being ready for public announcement.

Should this happen you will find the “anti-choice” forces quickly at work to create an environment that would make it most difficult — if not impossible — to function and to enlist financial and other support.”

The manual also argues that the key to a successful program is to present it in such a way that it undercuts any potential opposition. It notes that the similarities between the four main existing programs “are no accident.”

The Indianapolis, Milwaukee, San Antonio and Atlanta privately funded voucher programs, for instance, emphasize that the program is designed to help moderate and low income families offset the cost of tuition at the private school of their choice. The statements consciously do not talk about the broader “choice” debate or problems in the public schools, or taxes, or unions, or test scores or any other issues that might arouse the least bit of controversy.

As Rooney told the conference, “The way we always position it is, we’re trying to help the children. Sure it is inherently a criticism of the public school system, but we don’t define it that way.”

The key marketing strategy, however, rests on an exploitation of worthwhile concepts such as of freedom of “choice” and parental rights.

“Sometimes, I think the way to do this is to simply stand up and say, parents should have the right to choose the schools their children will attend because parents should have the right to choose schools their children will attend. Thank you and good night,” said Boaz of the CATO Institute. “I’m not really sure why there needs to be more argument than that.”

Schools and Democracy

Absent from the “choice” movement’s discussion is any talk of the role of public schools in a democracy, beyond ensuring a minimally skilled workforce. Indeed, it was never suggested at the Indianapolis conference that the larger society has an inherent interest in education issues. The argument was that parents have the right to do what they think is best for their child, and that’s that. Of course, another dominant theme was the unchallenged assumption that a market approach will magically improve our nation’s schools. Throughout the conference, this argument was tinged with not-so-subtle anti-communist references to the breakup of the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe and calls to break the government’s “monopoly” on education.

As Timothy Ehrgott, administrator of the Indianapolis voucher program, said in the final words spoken at the conference: “Let’s go out and give some of the same choices to our children that they have in Warsaw, Poland and Russia now.”

(For a more complete discussion of the role of schools in a democracy and the dangers of a marketplace approach to education, see False Choices, a special issue of Rethinking Schools.).

While it’s too soon to tell whether conference organizers will succeed in instituting privately funded voucher programs in the 25 cities targeted, the power of the movement is already clear. Most important, the organizers know what they want and have the support and backing of well-funded foundations and think tanks. Feeding on legitimate discontent and wrapping their program in the mantle of all-American values such as “choice,” they have clearly seized the initiative. As in so many other political campaigns, victory can all too easily go to those who offer simplistic solutions to complex problems.

In this regard, the Indianapolis conference was not only a call to arms for those who want to institute private school “choice” supported by public tax dollars. It was a warning to those who truly care about the future of public education in this country: focusing reform efforts exclusively on calls for more funding and refusing to acknowledge the many serious, non-financial problems in our nation’s urban schools is a recipe for defeat.