School Choice & Charters

Republicans Prefer To Back Vouchers By Any Other Name

By Darcia Harris Bowman — January 31, 2001 6 min read
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Call it “scholarships,” “parental options,” “school choice,” or even “student opportunities"—call it anything but “vouchers.”

That appears to be the conventional wisdom among Republicans here these days for describing a policy that allows the use of public money to pay for students’ tuition at private and religious schools. President Bush unveiled just such a proposal last week—albeit one that is confined to children who attend chronically failing Title I schools—but the word “vouchers” was nowhere to be heard.

“Parents and children who have only bad options must eventually get good options if we’re to succeed all across the country,” the new president said at a Jan. 23 White House ceremony held to announce his legislative agenda on education. “There are differences of opinions about what those options should be. ... I’m going to take my opinion to the Hill and let folks debate it.”

Members of Mr. Bush’s staff have been no less resolute about avoiding the V-word.

Appearing on CNN’s “Late Edition” Jan. 21, White House Chief of Staff Andrew Card insisted that “rather than talking about vouchers, we’re talking about a commitment to a child, to make sure that a child is well- educated.”

At a press briefing following Mr. Bush’s speech, White House press secretary Ari Fleischer argued the president’s proposal was “not what has traditionally been called a voucher plan” because it would not be statewide and would provide aid only to a limited number of students.

And Karl Rove, a senior adviser to President Bush, told NBC News’ “Meet the Press” that “the word vouchers is misused. [The president’s] proposal is that if schools in the inner cities fail to do the job after three years, the money follows the child.”

Nevertheless, what Mr. Rove was describing bears a striking resemblance to Nobel laureate economist Milton Friedman’s definition of vouchers. And Mr. Friedman should know: He pioneered the idea and the term in the mid-1950s.

The president’s proposal is “the fundamental idea Mr. Friedman originally proposed,” said Laura J. Swartley, the communications coordinator for the Indianapolis-based Milton and Rose D. Friedman Foundation. “Politically, [the term ‘voucher’] has gotten a bad name for the wrong reasons, and they have to sugarcoat it. We don’t care what it’s called, as long as it can be passed and it helps children.”

Out With the Old

So why has the word “vouchers” been banned—and by a GOP administration?

Some voucher advocates believe that changing their language may be the only way to reclaim an idea they believe their opponents have successfully—and wrongly—made synonymous with “anti-public education.”

Indeed, efforts led by the national teachers’ unions have defeated one voucher plan after another at the ballot box, most recently quashing citizen initiatives that would have established state voucher programs in California and Michigan.

And this past week, congressional Democrats railed against Mr. Bush’s voucher proposal, even while praising most other provisions of the president’s K-12 education plan.

“It doesn’t surprise me that Bush, who wants to be a uniter, would steer clear of a word that no matter how it’s uttered, or how it’s packaged, makes the diehards in the Democratic Party go crazy,” said Darcy Olsen, the director of education and child policy for the Cato Institute, a libertarian think tank in Washington. “In order to get to the heart of the issue, they’re saying, ‘Let’s get rid of the most divisive words.’ ”

Mr. Bush’s education secretary, Rod Paige, has consciously avoided the term “vouchers” for years. As the superintendent of the Houston Independent School District, he launched a program that allows students in overcrowded or low-performing schools to transfer to private, nonreligious schools at the district’s expense. (“Voucher-Style Program Offers Clues To Paige’s Outlook,” Jan. 10, 2001.)

Though more limited and less controversial than the voucher programs in Milwaukee, Cleveland, and Florida, all of which were established by state legislatures, Houston’s policy is, by most definitions, also a voucher program. Still, Mr. Paige refused to call the policy anything but “educational contracting” while he was in Houston, and he’s not talking about vouchers in his new post, either.

“We never use that word too much,” Mr. Paige said about vouchers in a recent appearance on ABC News’ “This Week.” “We hear that a lot, but parental choice is our preferred way to approach the issue.”

According to Deborah Tannen, a professor of linguistics at Georgetown University, “Republicans have a long history of changing words rather than policies, and they know how powerful language can be.”

“You can think of ‘partial-birth abortion,’ which has been so successful in stigmatizing what is really simply a late-term abortion—it’s not a birth at all—and you can think of ‘pro-life,’ for a position that is really anti-abortion,” argued Ms. Tannen, the author of the 1998 book The Argument Culture: Moving From Debate to Dialogue.

Bob Chase, the president of the National Education Association, said the new Bush administration’s approach had been tried before. (Indeed, former President George Bush called his voucher plan a “GI Bill for Children.”) But the union leader predicted the name game would fail once again with Congress and the public.

“A voucher is a voucher is a voucher,” Mr. Chase said. “The fact is, the term ‘voucher’ has a negative connotation because this idea has been defeated in every instance the public has had a chance to vote on it. I understand the process they’re using, but I don’t think it will work, because there is significant opposition to vouchers in the House and Senate.”

But a prominent voucher supporter argued that dropping the term could help sway public opinion on the issue.

“This is a wise approach and it’s one we recommend,” said Kaleem Caire, the executive director of the Black Alliance for Education Options, based in Milwaukee. “For years, the [teachers’] unions have been telling lies and half-truths and misguiding people. This is not about bankrupting education or punishing teachers ... it’s to provide children with opportunities.”

Vouchers vs. Opportunities

Polling data, meanwhile, suggest that the Bush administration’s strategy of reframing the voucher debate as one of parental choice may be well-timed.

In an analysis this month of Americans’ response to questions about vouchers, the Gallup Organization concluded that public support on the voucher issue was “essentially up for grabs.”

Depending on how a voucher was defined in opinion surveys taken this month by the Princeton, N.J., polling outfit, support for the idea swung from as much as 30 percentage points higher than the opposition to 18 percentage points lower.

Those surveyed responded more favorably to such a proposal when it was described as a choice or option for parents and children, as a program that would pay only part of the cost of a private school education, or as a policy that would allow students to attend “religious” schools, as opposed to simply “private” schools.

“If I were the Bush people—or Ted Kennedy for that matter—I would get out and try to define vouchers,” said Frank M. Newport, the editor in chief of the Gallup Poll, “because public opinion right now is open to whoever can make their point the strongest.”

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A version of this article appeared in the January 31, 2001 edition of Education Week as Republicans Prefer To Back Vouchers By Any Other Name

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