The conference was billed as “a new kind of dialogue” over school vouchers, designed to break the stalemate between hardened policy positions. But the panelists gathered here last week found no room for rapprochement.
“If I thought they would work, I would be for them,” Sandra Feldman, the president of the American Federation of Teachers, said at the conference sponsored by the University of Pennsylvania’s Annenberg Public Policy Center.
“But they haven’t worked,” she argued. “When all the smoke is cleared, ... the case for vouchers just isn’t there. It’s a diversion from what needs to be done to help poor children.”
Clint Bolick, the vice president of the Institute for Justice, a pro-voucher legal organization, countered that “the AFT gives lip service to reform, but when it comes to school choice, they build a Berlin Wall around it.”
He also attacked the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and the Clinton administration for their steadfast opposition to vouchers.
“The Clinton administration is emblematic of the Democratic Party being totally beholden to its special interests,” added Mr. Bolick, a former official in the Department of Justice under President Reagan.
The conference was ostensibly organized around a proposal for a “grand bargain” on school vouchers that might be embraced by people on both the right and the left.
Matthew Miller, a senior fellow at the Annenberg Center, wrote an article in The Atlantic Monthly last year proposing an experiment in which three or four cities with failing public schools would be given a 20 percent boost in per-pupil spending. That would give them “the resources the left says they need,” he wrote. At the same time, every child in those cities would get a voucher worth about $6,000 to attend any school, public or private, available to them for that amount.
Mr. Miller approached a number of prominent liberal and conservative thinkers and politicians about the idea, and he found at least some support for trying such an experiment.
“Democrats should see large-scale urban voucher programs as an opportunity, not a threat,” Mr. Miller wrote in his article, “A Bold Experiment to Fix City Schools,” which ran in the magazine’s July 1999 issue.
But despite signs that some liberal-leaning thinkers and officials might be willing to give vouchers a try, most long-standing opponents appear committed to opposing such programs.
“Rather than bargain about vouchers and abstract sums of money, I want to talk about the things that work,” Ms. Feldman said last week. “Let’s do an experiment in educational adequacy for poor children. And let’s do it for at least as long as the voucher experiment has been going on in Milwaukee, which is 10 years.”
Andrew Rotherham, the top education policy adviser in the Clinton White House, also sidestepped Mr. Miller’s proposal.
“It’s unfortunate how toxic this debate has become,” Mr. Rotherham said, adding that he considers charter schools a better solution to problems in public education.
“Charters are working, and they promote choice and competition—something voucher advocates purport to want,” he said.
Hilary Shelton, the director of the NAACP’s Washington bureau, said most voucher proposals would “pull the rug from public school funding.”
He said that Kweisi Mfume, the president of the NAACP, did not support Mr. Miller’s proposal or any voucher program, despite being quoted in the Atlantic article as being open to the “grand bargain.” Mr. Miller said he stood by his quotes.
Lamar Alexander promoted a variation of an idea he had advanced as secretary of education under President Bush. In 1992, the Bush administration proposed a “GI Bill” for children in which half a million low- and middle-income children would have received $1,000 scholarships to use at the schools of their choice. The proposal never got out of a congressional committee.
“I’d like to up the ante,” said Mr. Alexander, who ran for president in 1996 and was a candidate in the current race for the Republican nomination until he dropped out last year. Instead of $500 million, he suggested $5 billion to give $1,000 scholarships to 5 million children.
He compared the plan to the original GI Bill that enabled veterans of World War II go to public and private colleges.
“Why don’t we try an idea that worked spectacularly well to create the best college system in the last 50 years, and see if it will help create better schools?” he said.
None of the panelists showed any sign of interest in Mr. Alexander’s plan.
Toward the end of the contentious conference, Mr. Miller quipped: “So, do we have a deal yet?”
A version of this article appeared in the March 08, 2000 edition of Education Week as No Compromise in Sight For Opponents in Voucher Debate