Bush Stand on School Choice Is Seen Bolder

By Julie A. Miller — September 09, 1992 9 min read
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In 1988, school choice would not have appeared on very many people’s lists of key Presidential campaign issues. Not a major topic of debate, it was just one item among many on the agenda of George Bush, who always discussed it in terms of encouraging parental choice among public schools.

Four years later, the notion of empowering parents to choose the schools their children attend by allowing them to spend public money at private schools has become the flagship of President Bush’s education agenda. It is the education issue he mentions even in speeches that are not specifically about education.

Both Mr. Bush and Gov. Bill Clinton of Arkansas, who strongly opposes private school choice, noted their divergent positions on the issue in accepting their parties’ nominations this summer.

Bush Administration officials maintain that the President’s stance has been consistent.

“While George Bush has been President I can think of no issue upon which he has been more consistent in all his speeches--that families should have more choice in regard to schools, including public, private, and religious,” Secretary of Education Lamar Alexander said at a news conference last month.

But the record indicates that even if Mr. Bush’s convictions on the issue have not changed, his public posture has become much bolder.

Observers attribute the shift in emphasis to a new phase in the national debate on choice, in which the role of private schools has taken on considerably greater prominence and credibility. Another factor, analysts suggest, is the Republicans’ belief that choice can work in their favor as a political issue.

“There has been a very radical turnaround,” said Charles J. O’Malley, who served for nearly 10 years as the Secretary of Education’s liaison to private school groups before resigning last year.

Public School Focus

The 1988 Republican platform supported tax credits for private school tuition and mentioned choice several times, calling for “voucher systems or other means of encouraging competition among public schools.” But it did not call for private school vouchers, as Mr. Bush and the 1992 platform now do.

Position papers and speeches on education distributed by the Bush campaign in 1988 made no mention of tax credits or vouchers for private schools, although they did support magnet schools and public school choice. In a 1987 speech, for example, Mr. Bush said the nation “should provide more choice to parents and students within the public school system.”

In January 1989, shortly before Mr. Bush was inaugurated, he spoke at a White House conference on choice. The President-elect called expanding choice “a national imperative,” but scarcely mentioned private schools and referred repeatedly to “public school choice.”

President Reagan spoke at the meeting, and he too avoided mention of private school choice, despite his earlier support for vouchers.

Private school representatives at the meeting said they received a clear message that they were not included in Mr. Bush’s vision of choice.

“We were quite disappointed,” said Joyce McCray, the director of the Council for the Advancement of Private Education.

Some advocates “viewed it as a reversal of position,” Mr. O’Malley recalled. “There had been enough innuendo that private schools thought [Mr. Bush] was supportive, or at least they weren’t sure where the Administration stood,” he said.

‘We Can’t Afford To Do That’

The President’s next public statement on choice came at a White House event in March 1989, when a high school student asked him about tuition tax credits.

“We can’t afford to do that,” he said. “It is the obligation of all taxpayers to support a public education system. We want it to be the best.”

That statement provoked a strong reaction from the private school community. Private school representatives said Mr. Bush told them that he favored tuition tax credits, but that the idea was not viable in tight budgetary times.

He also said “it was important for parents to have choice but he felt it was a good strategy to start with public school choice,” recalled Sister Catherine T. McNamee, the president of the National Catholic Educational Association. “He said if we could get people thinking about choice in the public sector, it wouldn’t seem so threatening.”

When Mr. Bush unveiled his first education bill, the only trace of choice was a new magnet-schools program for public schools that would not be tied to desegregation.

In ensuing months, officials made numerous speeches promoting choice that were ambiguous about whether the Administration’s vision included private schools. Roger B. Porter, Mr. Bush’s domestic-policy adviser, talked about competition among schools at a November meeting of business leaders, for example, but did not mention private schools.

Private school advocates were included on panels at a series of forums on choice Secretary of Education Lauro F. Cavazos held across the country in 1989, and the Secretary said private schools should be part of the debate. However, Mr. Cavazos carefully limited promises of federal support to public schools.

As late as December 1990, when he announced the creation of a choice “outreach office” within the Education Department, Mr. Cavazos said choice plans including private schools would have to proceed without federal funding.

A Change in Tactics

Even then, though, a change in tactics was being debated at the White House.

“There was a lot of discussion within the Administration,” Mr. O’Malley said. “There was an internal argument on both the policy and the political levels.”

Mr. Bush’s original education bill died at the end of the 100th Congress in 1990, and Mr. O’Malley recalled seeing a draft of new legislation late that year that included a private school choice program. The document also bore numerous notations questioning that stance.

Rep. Bill Goodling of Pennsylvania, the ranking Republican on the House Education and Labor Committee, recalled a meeting in late 1990 in which John H. Sununu, then the White House chief of staff, informed him that “they were going beyond public school choice as an Administration.”

“He presented it to me that it was a change, it was important, and it was necessary,” said Mr. Goodling, a critic of private school choice.

Mr. Goodling also suggested that the Administration had less to lose in legislative terms by making a more controversial proposal at that point, as the Democratic Congress was unlikely to “allow the President to look like the education President” by enacting his plan within a year of the next election.

When Mr. Bush’s proposed fiscal 1992 budget was released in February 1991, it included a proposal to offer $200 million in incentives to school districts that adopted choice plans including private schools.

Mr. Bush proposed a different plan this year, a pilot program that would give $1,000 vouchers to low- and middle-income parents in selected cities to spend at the public or private school of their choice.

“He didn’t specify [early in his term] that the only kind of choice he was interested in was public school choice,” Mr. Porter said in an interview last week. “I’m not aware he has ever said anything against choice including private schools.”

However, Mr. Porter also said Mr. Bush made a conscious decision to initially discuss choice in terms that would help promote the nascent concept without alarming people.

“Choice is a relatively new idea, and we are trying to get it out there,” Mr. Porter said. “We wanted to encourage states and locals to try various choice plans, and we wanted to be sure we didn’t discourage choice getting a foothold by saying we only favor it if it includes private and parochial schools.”

“The debate has evolved,” he added. “Choice is a widely acceptable idea now, and a lot of the choice debate has shifted to arguments over how far choice ought to extend.”

Growing Public Attention

Outside observers also say that a key influence on the Administration’s public stance has been the growing attention being paid to choice outside Washington.

Analysts in particular cite the inauguration of a private school voucher plan in Milwaukee and the release of an influential book advocating school choice, Politics, Markets, and America’s Schools.

The Milwaukee plan, which allows a limited number of low-income students to attend private, nonsectarian schools at public expense, was sponsored by a black Democrat, State Assemblywoman Polly Williams. The book, written by John E. Chubb, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, and Terry M. Moe, a professor of political science at Stanford University, was published under the auspices of Brookings, a think tank in the political mainstream.

“I remember that having a great impact on White House officials,” said Jeanne Allen, until recently the chief education analyst at the conservative Heritage Foundation. “Suddenly, it was very safe to talk about it. Not only did we have Brookings writing about it, but there was this slew of activity around the country that wasn’t identified with one political party.”

Administration officials “weren’t disbelievers exactly, but they needed political cover,” she said. “They were afraid it would be seen as a ‘rich Republican’ issue. They didn’t see it as a winning issue.”

Observers also pointed to persistent lobbying by choice advocates within the Administration and the arrival of Mr. Alexander as Secretary of Education.

A Political Plus?

As a political issue, private school choice is a favorite among conservatives, who enthusiastically supported its inclusion in the Republican platform.

Analysts also suggest that Mr. Bush’s latest choice proposal is aimed at what could be the crucial battleground in the fall election--the industrial Midwest. There, the decisive swing votes are expected to be provided by blue-collar Roman Catholics, who went heavily for the G.O.P. ticket in the past three elections.

Although many of those voters have been alienated by Mr. Bush’s handling of the economy, they could be won over by the prospect of substantial federal aid for sending their children to Catholic schools.

“Clearly, the White House believes that choice is popular with a wide constituency and with people who are not usually Republicans, like Catholics and poor people,” Mr. Chubb said in an interview. “I talk about this a lot, and the best response I get is in the inner cities.”

There is evidence that the general public has mixed feelings about choice, however.

In a 1991 poll by the Gallup Organization, for example, 62 percent of respondents favored choice among public schools in their communities.

Fifty percent said they would support a voucher plan under which “the government allots a certain amount of money for each child’s education” and parents “can then send the child to any public, parochial or private school,” while 39 percent were opposed.

When asked if they would favor “allowing students and parents to choose a private school to attend at public expense,” however, 68 percent of those polled said no.

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A version of this article appeared in the September 09, 1992 edition of Education Week as Bush Stand on School Choice Is Seen Bolder


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