Talking Down Vouchers

by Matt Moore

Ask any six-year-old and he will tell you - Bill Clinton's shining example aside - that it is wrong to tell a lie. But this simplest of schoolboy lessons has been lost on the critics of school choice.

President George W. Bush's education-reform plan brought the school-choice debate into the national spotlight. Over the past couple of months, as Congress turned Bush'scomprehensive education plan into a patchwork quilt of pork-barrel spending, school vouchers were eliminated, partly due to the infectious lies of the anti-choice movement.

Now, instead of allowing children in failing schools to escape with a federal Title I voucher, the new education bill will allow children to attend another public school or use their federal money to hire a tutor or purchase an educational aid. At least it's a start.

What began as a small experiment in Milwaukee, Wis., in 1990, has exploded into a national movement that today includes more than 60,000 students. The competition fueled by school-choice programs across the country from Milwaukee to Florida to San Antonio has improved the quality of education in those areas and has blessed those children who were once trapped in failing schools with new opportunities to succeed.

As the choice movement has grown, so too has the rhetoric served up by anti-choicers. Faced with the success and promise of school choice, union leaders and their allies have resorted to outright lies to protect their jobs - at the expense of the students whom they are charged with teaching. The story seems to be: "If we can't defeat choice on its merits, we will fear-monger in the hopes of duping people into abandoning choice."

According to a soon-to-be-released NCPA study by Kaleem Caire and former Milwaukee Public Schools superintendent Howard Fuller, most of the arguments leveled against school choice are distortions, half-truths, and lies. Consider these examples:

  • Wisconsin State Rep. Christine Sinicki says, "Choice schools are picking and choosing the children they want, but public schools cannot turn away anyone who comes to their door." And here is Sandra Feldman, president of the American Federation of Teachers: "In Milwaukee, thousands of eligible students didn't participate in the choice program because they couldn't find schools that would accept them."
  • The fact is, as the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel has reported, "No student has formally complained of being denied admission to any choice school. There also appear to have been no such claims from a parent or family in Ohio or Florida, the other two states with voucher programs mainly for low-income families."
  • Sam Carmen, executive director of the Milwaukee Teachers' Education Association, has argued, "Voucher programs in the city of Milwaukee adversely affect schools and class sizes are increasing while programs like art, music and physical education are being reduced."
  • But the fact is that education budgets in Milwaukee, Cleveland, and Pensacola - the three areas that have tax-funded private school vouchers - have all increased significantly. In Milwaukee, enrollment grew 8 percent, real spending increased 29 percent, state aid jumped 55 percent, and the tax levy dropped by one-third.
  • Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D., N.Y.) - a life-long advocate of keeping children in failing public schools, except when it comes to her own daughter - has said, "Experiments have demonstrated absolutely no evidence that vouchers help improve student achievement." But this is plainly false. Overwhelming research demonstrates that students who take advantage of vouchers make positive academic strides.
  • The NAACP - long an opponent of tax-funded vouchers for private school education - has said, "Vouchers encourage segregation." Yet the fact is that more than half of all public-school seniors are in classes that have more than 90 percent, or fewer than 10 percent, minority students. In private schools, just 41 percent of students are in similarly segregated classrooms.

It's a pity that the anti-choicers have resorted to lies and misinformation to make their case. Their deceptions are counterproductive. School choice - and the future of education in America - is a complex subject that deserves a meaningful, honest, and open debate.