Governor Says He’d Try Public-School Vouchers

By Thomas Toch — December 12, 1984 3 min read

Washington--Arguing that public schools offer parents coercion instead of choices, Gov. Lamar Alexander of Tennessee said last week that all students should be free to select the public school they wish to attend.

“No amount of lecturing by governors or regulations from legislatures can improve public education as well as allowing parents to make marketplace choices,” Governor Alexander said in proposing what he described as a system of public-school vouchers. “It would straighten public education right up.”

“If no one buys Fords one year, the guy building them is fired and someone else is brought in to do the job,” he said. “A voucher plan would produce the same sort of changes in education. If the line is long outside one school, it must have something good to offer; if the line isn’t long, it’s going to have to make improvements if it wants to stay in business.”

No Blueprint

Governor Alexander, a Republican who has gained national recognition for his efforts to reshape the teaching profession in Tennessee, said he does not have a blueprint for implementing such a voucher system. But, he said, “If a local school district came to us and asked us to fund a pilot project, I’d do it in a minute.”

He also urged President Reagan to use the “bully pulpit” of the Presidency to promote the idea.

The Governor, who made the proposal at a seminar here sponsored by the American Enterprise Institute, a public-policy organization, said his plan would not permit, as would other voucher plans that have been proposed in recent years, the use of tax dollars to pay students’ tuition at nonpublic schools.

He said his plan would strengthen public support for public schools, adding that “if it is enacted, it would probably cut in half the number of students in home schooling, independent schools, and parochial schools.”

All Students

While an increasing number of school systems are offering parents the opportunity to send students, usually those in high school, to “magnet” schools, Governor Alexander said the freedom to select a school should be extended to the parents of all students at all grade levels.

“It might be,” he said, “that parents would have to let a school system know by February where they want their children enrolled for the following September, giving the school system their first, second, and third choices of schools. School administrators would do their best to offer the parents their first choice.”

He noted that Tennessee and other states are requiring “comprehensive testing” of students now and that the results of those tests could be combined with other indicators, such as per-pupil spending and curriculum offerings, to provide parents with a basis on which to choose one school over another.

He said he would be “reluctant” to institute a formal state-sponsored school-by-school score card.

Practical Problems

The Governor acknowledged that “there are some very large practical problems” that must be surmounted before such a voucher plan could be effectively implemented.

Bill Honig, superintendent of public instruction in California and a participant in the aei seminar on “Excellence in Education,” said in an interview that equity and “community” issues are among those raised by Governor Alexander’s proposal.

“For example,” Mr. Honig said, “how do you ensure that students who want to go to their neighborhood school are given the chance to?”

Mr. Honig, who said he supports the goals of the Governor’s proposal, said during the seminar that “in California, 75 percent of the adults don’t have kids in school. They don’t care about choice as much as they do about results.”

Governor Alexander said in an interview following the seminar that “those who don’t have kids in school will be impressed by the voucher system because it will produce better results.”

Asked whether such a plan would cause students in inner-city schools to flee to more affluent suburban schools, he said, “That’s exactly what should happen, inner-city schools will be forced to attract a crowd.”

The Governor said that if school systems charged tuition of students living outside of their boundaries and the students’ parents were unable to afford the tuition, states would probably be expected to pay it.

He added that any voucher plans enacted would have to meet state and federal civil-rights and school-desegregation statutes.

A version of this article appeared in the December 12, 1984 edition of Education Week as Governor Says He’d Try Public-School Vouchers