Americans Like Public Schools . . .and Vouchers

Published August 1, 2001

Are the American people sending a definitive message on school choice by consistently rejecting voucher initiatives at the ballot box?

The teacher unions claim they are, using the voters’ rejection of vouchers as part of their own self-interested opposition to any new parental choice proposal. But the results of an extensive, nationally representative public opinion survey show Americans are, in fact, quite open to the idea of vouchers.

In a survey conducted by Stanford University political science professor Terry M. Moe, 60 percent of respondents registered their support for vouchers, and only 32 percent registered opposition. The strongest support came from families who could make use of vouchers to get their children out of low-quality schools.

The results of the survey are reported in Moe’s new book, Schools, Vouchers, and the American Public (Brookings Institution Press, 2001), a title that recalls his ground-breaking 1990 book with John E. Chubb, Politics, Markets, and America’s Schools.

The earlier book promoted a vision of public education built on parental choice and competition among schools. Moe’s new book reviews progress toward that goal and carefully examines public opinion data to assess the likelihood of achieving further progress with different political coalitions and strategies.

“Decades from now, vouchers will come to be an integral part of American education,” Moe predicts.

Then why are voucher initiatives failing now? That has to do with how poorly informed people are, explains Moe.

Even though voucher supporters are in the majority, they aren’t well-informed about choice or its possible consequences. At the same time, Americans generally believe that having a public education system is a good thing; they think the schools are doing a reasonably good job; and they don’t want to do anything that might harm the functioning of the public school system. So if concerns are raised about the negative effects vouchers might have on the public schools, voters stick with the status quo and vote “No” on vouchers.

“On the opposition side, you don’t have to convince people that you’re right,” Moe explained to a Brookings Institution audience recently. “What you have to do is convince people that there is doubt [about vouchers], that there is uncertainty, that there is risk.” And given the general population’s comfort with the public education status quo, “this is a piece of cake.”

The lesson, concludes Moe, is that ballot-box initiatives are not the kinds of battles school choice advocates can win. The way to succeed, he contends, is through the legislative process: the way policy is normally made and changed in the U.S. The voucher victories that have been achieved to date–Milwaukee, Cleveland, and Florida–all have been achieved by that route.

,br>They Like Public, Prefer Private

Despite their support for public schools, Americans tend to think private schools are better. A majority of public school parents (52 percent) would be interested in sending their child to a private school if money were not a problem. These parents don’t seek out private schools for racist, elitist, or religious reasons, notes Moe, but because they want to place their children in better-performing schools.

If a voucher system were to be adopted, Moe found Americans are overwhelmingly convinced religious schools should be included in the range of schools where vouchers could be redeemed.

They also believe everyone should get a voucher. However, because they want to make sure vouchers don’t harm the public schools, Americans aren’t willing to make the transition to universal vouchers in one big leap. Their preference is to move incrementally toward that goal, first giving vouchers to those who need them the most, such as children from low-income families in the inner city.

One of Moe’s findings is sure to alarm many voucher advocates: Americans are overwhelmingly in favor of imposing a set of basic regulations on voucher schools to hold them accountable for “quality and proper management.”

“[T]hey believe, by a big margin, that private schools should not be able to set their own admissions criteria,” said Moe. “They would have to admit everybody. And they want to force religious schools to admit students of every religion. . . . Voucher leaders might not like it, but that’s what people want.”

Vouchers and the Civil Rights Movement

Civil rights leaders who oppose vouchers might not like what Moe sees happening in the future, either. Today, the anti-voucher views of established civil rights groups like the NAACP are at odds with the pro-voucher views of their constituents. As a result, new groups like the Black Alliance for Educational Options, led by a new generation of young black leaders, are springing up to represent those constituents.

“Now the NAACP is engaged in an attempt to convince its own constituents that they are wrong in their perceptions of their own interests. That is not going to work,” said Moe, predicting that first the civil rights groups, and then the Democrats, will shift over to support vouchers.

“I think Democrats ultimately will have to resolve this tension with their own constituents by actually representing them,” he added.

Although changes in public opinion move “glacially,” Moe says charter schools and privately funded vouchers are getting people used to the idea of having choice as an accepted part of the education system. The continuing success of private scholarship programs for low-income families is not only winning over the participants and their families, but also changing the attitudes of their friends, neighbors, and extended families towards choice.