School & District Management

Public Warming to Vouchers, Book Argues

By Mark Walsh — May 23, 2001 5 min read
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The last book Terry M. Moe wrote about school choice almost single-handedly propelled private school vouchers from a dusty policy idea to a sustained movement.

Now, just as vouchers have suffered big defeats in state ballot initiatives and been shelved at the federal level, the Stanford University researcher is back with a book arguing that Americans, when surveyed in a sophisticated way, strongly favor the concept. And he predicts that a limited voucher system, benefiting poor and minority students initially, will almost inevitably take hold across the country.

“Decades from now, vouchers will come to be an integral part of American education,” Mr. Moe declares in Schools, Vouchers, and the American Public, to be published next month by the Brookings Institution, a Washington think tank.

“I think progress for the voucher movement is extremely likely,” Mr. Moe added in an interview last week. The professor of political science acknowledges he is a voucher proponent, but contends his conclusions are driven by research data, not his personal beliefs.

“My aim here is not to convince anyone that vouchers are a good thing,” he writes in the book. “My aim is simply to understand what is going on.”

In 1990, Mr. Moe and co-author John E. Chubb released Politics, Markets, and America’s Schools, which argued that public schools suffer under the heavily political governance of states, schools boards, and bureaucracies. The book called for a free-market system of education in which parents could send their children to a selection of public and private schools at government expense.

The book was widely debated and helped fuel a movement that led to state-enacted voucher programs for low-income children in Milwaukee and Cleveland, and a Florida program that provides vouchers to children in poor-performing schools. (Children in only two Pensacola schools currently qualify.)

Mr. Moe’s new book is based on a 1995 telephone survey of 4,700 Americans about attitudes on public schools, private schools, and vouchers. Mr. Moe spent five years analyzing the data for what he describes as a deeper understanding of those attitudes. The lengthy time since the survey does not call his results into question because, he said, subsequent studies have largely confirmed his data.

Broad Constituencies

The 1995 survey asked respondents about a system in which every child would be given a voucher to attend a public, private, or parochial school at government expense. The wording is important, Mr. Moe argues, because in other surveys about vouchers, responses vary significantly depending on how the questions are phrased.The initial response to Mr. Moe’s survey question was 60 percent in favor, 32 percent opposed, and 7 percent saying they didn’t know. (Percentages are rounded in the report.)

The survey showed that parents were more supportive of vouchers than nonparents, private school parents were more supportive than public school parents, and blacks and Hispanics were more supportive than whites.

At the end of the 15-minute survey, respondents were asked again, and 5 percent of supporters switched to opposing vouchers, while 12 percent of opponents switched to support. Mr. Moe goes into some detail about the relative lack of knowledge about vouchers among Americans and how a lengthy survey tends to inform respondents about the issue.

“Vouchers appeal to broad constituencies,” Mr. Moe concludes.

So what about the criticism that when voters are faced with real voucher proposals in ballot measures, they have overwhelmingly rejected them? Last fall, voters in California and Michigan overwhelmingly defeated voucher initiatives.

Bella Rosenberg, an assistant to the president of the American Federation of Teachers, said the rejection by voters of specific voucher proposals is more telling about true attitudes on the issue than all the public opinion surveys combined.

“All sorts of voucher proposals have failed,” said Ms. Rosenberg, whose union strongly opposes vouchers. The book’s conclusions “just don’t track with reality,” she added.

Mr. Moe says in the book that ballot proposals on vouchers are “perverse,” and that they are easily defeated by opponents who can raise fears that vouchers will undermine the public schools.

“For the voucher movement, initiatives are probably no-win propositions,” Mr. Moe writes.

He says the survey analysis shows proponents of vouchers should stick to what he calls “normal politics"—action by legislators.

The kind of voucher programs Americans are likely to support won’t please some voucher purists, who call for a free market of private school options without heavy government regulation. The survey respondents favor a voucher system in which private schools are subject to regulations on teacher qualifications, financial accountability, and curricula, Mr. Moe writes.

But they side with voucher traditionalists by favoring the inclusion of religious schools in any voucher program. Americans are also voucher “universalists” in the long run, meaning they believe all children should be eligible, although limited programs serving low-income and minority children are viewed as a fair way to experiment with vouchers, according to the book.

“The bottom line is that if voucher leaders want to maximize their public support, they need to endorse policy proposals that appeal to centrist constituencies,” Mr. Moe writes.

He goes on to predict that Democratic politicians and civil rights groups such as the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People will eventually drop traditional opposition to vouchers because they will find themselves out of step with their constituencies.

‘Framework for Debate’

Henry M. Levin, the director of the National Center for the Study of Privatization of Education at Teachers College, Columbia University, said that Mr. Moe’s research is sound even if some of his interpretations go too far.

“This is serious scholarly work, and it will be a framework for debate on these issues,” said Mr. Levin, who has read the book. “Most of the work done on education vouchers is just special pleading. It pretends to put the evidence in and puts footnotes in, but it is not scholarly.”

Mr. Levin, who is well regarded as a left-of-center thinker on school choice issues, says he is not an outright opponent of vouchers, but is “cautious” about them. He is somewhat skeptical about Mr. Moe’s theory that Democrats and civil rights groups will come around to supporting vouchers.

“My own view is that is very speculative,” Mr. Levin said.

Coverage of research is underwritten in part by a grant from the Spencer Foundation.

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A version of this article appeared in the May 23, 2001 edition of Education Week as Public Warming to Vouchers, Book Argues

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