Voucher Veneer: The Deeper Agenda to Privatize Public Education

A report by People For the American Way Foundation

Executive Summary

Today, governmental responsibilities in education and the strong connection that Americans have with their public schools are being put to a serious test. A network of Religious Right groups, free-market economists, ultraconservative columnists and others are using vouchers as a vehicle to achieve their ultimate goal of privatizing education. Their embrace of vouchers reflects their view that to be successful, privatization must be achieved incrementally. The long-term goal is to make all schooling an activity supplied by private sources: for-profit management companies, religious organizations and home schools. The movement believes that targeted voucher plans, such as those in Florida, Milwaukee and Cleveland, give them a foot in the door en route to achieving this goal. While many of those who want to privatize education choose their words very carefully, others are more candid about their goals. The Heartland Institute’s Joseph Bast has urged others who share his group’s extreme agenda to be patient. “The complete privatization of schooling might be desirable, but this objective is politically impossible for the time being. Vouchers are a type of reform that is possible now, and would put us on the path to further privatization.”

1. Vouchers are part of a broader strategy by some to privatize public schools.

Joel Belz, publisher of World—a Religious Right magazine—wrote a column several years ago sympathizing with those who oppose vouchers because they don’t want government to play any role in education. He wrote: “If [supporting vouchers] helps bring down the statist system, which it will, it will be worth the temporary compromise.”(emphasis added) Supporting vouchers now, Belz argued, would help pro-privatization groups in the long run “gain a larger strategic advantage.”

2. Voucher supporters are pushing their agenda from the highest levels.

Privatization advocates have made a serious effort to bring about change, no longer from outside the system but from within the corridors of power. U.S. Rep. Tom Tancredo, R-Colo., after his appointment to the House education committee said, “I think it’s a lot easier to kill the beast when you get in the cave.” Recently, the Bush Administration appointed Nina Shokraii Rees, a staunch voucher advocate, to head DOE’s Office of Innovation and Improvement.

3. Many pro-privatization groups offer two messages: one for committed followers and another for the broader public.

For example, the Florida-based James Madison Institute has stated that it “believes that parents should have the freedom to make decisions in the best interests of their children.” Most Americans, including those who strongly support public education, would likely agree with this vague statement. These words, of course, leave unmentioned the fact that the James Madison Institute’s education policy director has signed a proclamation that calls for scrapping the public education system.

4. Many existing private schools are unlikely to accommodate significant numbers of additional students in a privatized system.

Chester E. Finn, Jr., who heads the Fordham Foundation, notes that it is generally hard to find private school leaders “who want their schools to grow, to open additional campuses, to recruit more clients.” Finn also recently admitted that “there aren’t enough private schools to go around” for would-be voucher students. Indeed, a massive number of schools would have to be built to replace all or most of the 92,000 public schools operating across America.

5. Vouchers can lead to hastily created ‘fly-by-night’ private schools unable to provide children with a quality education.

Concerns about quality are magnified by the fact that private and religious schools are not held accountable in the same manner as public schools. In fact, the CATO Institute’s David Salisbury recently argued that private schools’ ability to disregard state standards is “the very basis for school choice.”

6. Schools may not be just another economic market.

The voucher movement largely owes its beginnings to economist Milton Friedman’s beliefs that the private sector delivers goods and services more efficiently than public institutions. Ironically, some of the conditions in public schools identified by critics as problems are rooted in the dynamics of the free market system they praise. Large schools were inspired largely by private enterprise, which has long encouraged “economies of scale.” Boston University professor Philip Tate has observed that rigid class schedules, reliance on test scores and other traits of public schools “were instituted in the name of efficiency” and created a “factory model” of schooling.

7. A privatized system of education could leave too many children behind.

It is likely that a privatized education system will cater to those students who are believed to be easier or less expensive to educate. The Heritage Foundation has expressed hope that “vouchers could limit how much taxpayers must pay to educate the disabled and begin a movement toward cost containment.” A survey by the U.S. Department of Education of private schools in large inner-cities found that between 70 and 85 percent of schools would “definitely or probably” not be willing to participate in a voucher program if they were required to accept “students with special needs such as learning disabilities, limited English proficiency or low achievement.” Among religious schools, 86 percent expressed this same unwillingness to participate.

8. The public supports public education.

In a national poll this year, Americans chose “reforming the existing public school system” over “finding an alternative” to the current system by a 69-to-27 percent margin. In last year’s annual Phi Delta Kappa-Gallup poll on education, 71 percent of public school parents gave a grade of A or B to the school attended by their oldest child.

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