From parents to political pundits, few education issues create more buzz than the V-word. Depending on who’s talking, vouchers offer the bright hope of choice for students stuck in troubled public schools or the beginning of the end for public education.
The Cato Institute, a Washington-based think tank that promotes limited government and the value of free markets, is looking to carve out a niche in the school choice debates with a new Center for Educational Freedom. The center will push to make the case that free markets have much to offer in the way of providing better options to students looking for something more than what traditional public schools deliver.
The center’s four-person staff will focus on varied aspects of school choice, including vouchers and tuition-tax-credit programs.
“We have had a long experience with government-run schools, and the regulation and monopoly of funding has created an environment where innovation doesn’t thrive,” said David Salisbury, the president of the new center and a former president of the Sutherland Institute in Salt Lake City, a research organization that also promotes free-market principles. “On the national scene, we will try and steer school choice in the right direction.”
But Dwight Holmes, the education policy manager with the People for the American Way Foundation, a liberal watchdog group, said in a time when the collapse of Enron Corp. highlights the dangers of unregulated markets, it’s a tough sell to tout the value of free-market ideologies.
“It seems to be an odd time to open a center that espouses the miracle of the market,” Mr. Holmes said. “Now people realize more than ever before that it is important for the government to be involved in education. ... This belies the roots of their beliefs. Ultimately, Cato would be happy if we just abolished the public schools.”
The center begins work at a critical moment for issues of school choice. The U.S. Supreme Court next week will take up a case testing the constitutionality of the Cleveland voucher program. And President Bush, in his federal budget proposal unveiled last week, is calling for a tax credit for private school tuition for parents with children in low-performing public schools.
In the case before the high court, the Cato Institute has filed a friend-of-the-court brief supporting the Cleveland program. Groups that are urging a decision against the program include the major national teachers’ unions, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, and People for the American Way. The Supreme Court will hear oral arguments Feb. 20 in Zelman v. Simmons-Harris and will likely rule on what is expected to be a landmark case this summer.
Mr. Salisbury believes the court will uphold the Cleveland voucher program. “This will create even more impetus for school choice around the country,” he said.
Cato Institute President Edward Crane said in a statement that the Center for Educational Freedom would offer informed policy analysis that would help promote an education system where school choice is valued.
“No policy issue is more important than the education of our children,” he said. “Increased centralization, stagnant test scores, and high school students who know little about American history and American values all indicate deep-seated problems. The center will explore ways to give parents, students, and teachers more choice and more freedom.”
A version of this article appeared in the February 13, 2002 edition of Education Week as Cato Institute Launches New Center To Support School Choice Efforts