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The Revival of the Private School Voucher Movement

By Dana Goldstein

(Post From Dana's Blog Ladywonk)

A few years ago, the private school voucher movement looked pretty much dead. The definitive study of the nation's largest such program, in Milwaukee, found no evidence that 20,000 students who won vouchers to attend inner city parochial schools performed better academically than students in traditional inner city public schools. Barack Obama hit the campaign trail as an education reformer not afraid to piss off teachers' unions, but made it clear he wasn't all that interested in compromising on vouchers, calling himself a "skeptic" and a "critic" of such policies. One of his first acts as president was to cut funding for the D.C. Opportunity Scholarships, a small voucher program with mixed results.

Even prominent Republicans lined up to offer mea culpas on vouchers, prompting Greg Anrig to ask in a 2008 Washington Monthly essay, "How did one of the conservative policy world's most cherished causes crumble so quickly?"

Well. One mid-term shellacking and a few Tea Parties later, vouchers are back, and in a very big way. Yesterday the education committee of the New Jersey state assembly advanced a bill to give corporations tax credits if they donate money for private school vouchers. Florida' new Republican governor, Rick Scott--who is being advised by Michelle Rhee--is offering up a number of creative voucher and voucher-like proposals that would suck tax dollars out of the public schools and inject them into Catholic schools and private tutoring services.

The Pennsylvania state senate is considering a voucher bill that one Democratic state senator has called a small but "very expensive new entitlement program in the midst of an unprecedented budget crisis." Something similar is going on in Indiana under the leadership of yet another GOP presidential hopeful, Gov. Mitch Daniels.

Meanwhile, in our nation's capital, the Washington Post is joining the bipartisan advocacy group D.C. Children First in rallying to reinstate the Opportunity Scholarships, citing high rates of parental satisfaction among the program's participants. From New York, Democrats for Education Reform executive director Joe Williams is advising Obama to "play 'let's make a deal'" on vouchers in order to win some Republican support for the reauthorization of No Child Left Behind. 

As I said on Bloggingheads last week, I wouldn't have a problem with Democrats using the D.C. voucher program as a negotiating chip. But I wanted to sketch out this whole nationwide trend in order to make the following point: While many progressive education reformers believed championing the public charter school sector would end the push toward vouchers and more explicit school privatization, that has not turned out to be the case. Rather, the mainstreaming of "school choice" ideology has contributed to reviving the entire menu of school choice options, most of which--in one way or another--put the focus on a tiny number of children who end up winning lotteries to get out of traditional public schools, instead of improving instruction for the vast majority of kids who remain in zoned schools.