Advocates for school choice who gathered just blocks from the White House last week expressed their growing frustration with a Republican White House that appears to be wavering in its support for their cause.
Originally organized by the Dallas-based National Center for Policy Analysis and Children First America, of Bentonville, Ariz., to promote the groups’ new book of essays on school choice, the Feb. 7 conference quickly became a forum for venting disappointment with President Bush’s apparent willingness to jettison vouchers from his education agenda.
“School choice ought to be part of public education, and I believe we ought not to be apologetic about that,” said Arizona schools Superintendent Lisa Graham Keegan, a Republican and a staunch supporter of school choice. Ms. Keegan had been seen as a contender for the education secretary’s post that went to Houston schools chief Rod Paige.
Clint Bolick, the vice president of the Institute for Justice, a legal-advocacy organization that defends voucher programs against court challenges, said that “2000 was a good year for school choice ... even though many people seem to be in retreat, even some of those who are supposed to be leading us.”
Poking fun at the Bush administration’s refusal to use the term “voucher” to describe the president’s proposal to allow students in persistently failing Title I schools to use government money to attend private schools, Robert Holland, a fellow at the Lexington Institute, told conference attendees: “It’s nice to be in the company of people for whom the use of the word ‘voucher’ isn’t a cause for dread and alarm.” (“Republicans Prefer To Back Vouchers by Any Other Name,” Jan. 31, 2001.)
“Here we don’t want to play games, because we know a voucher is a beautiful thing if it allows a child to ... attend a safe school, a good school,” said Mr. Holland, whose Arlington, Va., think tank promotes school choice. “Vouchers are not evil—they’ve just been demonized by people who have a vested interest in keeping the system the way it is.”
Even Sen. Jon Kyl, R-Ariz., got in on the finger-wagging.
“When we’re told that school choice is some kind of deal-breaker, we need to remind people—perhaps even some in the administration—who won this election and why,” Sen. Kyl said.
‘Time Is Ripe’
Regardless of whether the White House stands firm on vouchers, the advocates gathered at the National Press Club here said they would continue to press for change. Mr. Bolick, in particular, expressed confidence that the U.S. Supreme Court would finally weigh in on the issue.
In December, a three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 6th Circuit declared the 5-year-old voucher program in Cleveland unconstitutional.
The Cleveland Scholarship and Tutoring Program, established by the Ohio legislature, provides some 4,000 low-income students with vouchers of up to $2,250 to help pay tuition at private schools. The federal appellate panel voted 2-1 to uphold a lower court’s ruling a year earlier that the program violated the establishment clause of the First Amendment because the vast majority of the participating private schools are religious.
The Ohio attorney general, backed by the Institute for Justice and other organizations, has filed a petition for a rehearing by the full appellate court. If the court denies that request, or rules against the program, Mr. Bolick predicted that the Supreme Court would hear the case.
And when that happens, “I believe we will prevail,” he said.
In the meantime, the school choice proponents pledged their continued support for charter schools, tax- credit programs for private school tuition, publicly financed voucher programs, and the scores of privately supported voucher initiatives.
Virginia Walden, the executive director of D.C. Parents for School Choice, said her personal experience with a privately financed voucher program here convinced her that school choice programs can make a difference for urban parents struggling to provide their children with a good education.
“I am not someone who ever imagined myself standing up in front of a room like this being an advocate for anything other than the three children living in my house,” Ms. Walden said. “But I had one child who was failing in a public school, and he was in trouble with the police, and I knew I had to do something.”
But, thanks to a voucher, Ms. Walden was able to send her son to a private school that she said helped him turn his life around.
“We like the president’s education plan, but we believe the voucher component is very weak,” Ms. Walden said. “We’re looking at organizing parents because we want a strong voucher program ... and the time is ripe for going to Capitol Hill.”
A version of this article appeared in the February 14, 2001 edition of Education Week as Voucher Advocates Fret Over Bush Stance