Americans Still Don’t Understand School Choice

Published February 1, 2001

Last November’s defeat of school choice initiatives in California and Michigan suggests the choice movement has lessons to learn about pursuing change through state legislatures versus ballot initiatives, according to speakers at a Heritage Foundation discussion on December 7. While victories had been achieved in the courts and media coverage was improving, several participants in “The Future of School Choice” noted the need to educate the public about school choice.

“The movement’s only wounds this year were self-inflicted wounds,” said Institute for Justice Vice President Clint Bolick, who is leading the court battle for school choice. “While there was no prospect of victory in California,” he added, “we are not a defeated movement.” Bolick highlighted legal victories and/or appeals with strong prospects for victory in Arizona, Cleveland, Florida, and Illinois.

“All in all, this was a very good year on the legal front,” said Bolick, noting prospects at the U.S. Supreme Court “are very positive” based on that court’s recent Mitchell v. Helms decision upholding public aid to private schools.

In Florida, “our next step in the legal battle for school choice is the state supreme court,” Bolick said. However, he pointed out that after the Institute won a school choice case in Arizona in 1999, the plaintiffs took the case to federal court.

Howard Fuller, president of the Black Alliance for Educational Options, emphasized that “this movement is not about ideology. . . . The movement is about empowering parents.” Discussing the newly formed BAEO, Fuller said, “The constituency that we support needs to be at the table from the start.” Furthermore, “people who are affected by something, whose lives will literally be changed, have to have a seat at the table.”

Fuller stressed his conviction that members of the minority communities targeted by many school choice programs must be heard and involved at the grassroots level.

“We have to develop a framework for what are good school choice programs and what are not,” he declared. “If we continue to be stupid strategically and tactically, then we ruin what are really positive possibilities.”

BAEO launched a significant media campaign during the fall of 2000, unveiling radio and television commercials, print advertisements, and a new Web site,

The strategic defeats in California and Michigan mask progress in the larger movement, according to Susan Mitchell, president of the American Education Reform Foundation. Mitchell, like Fuller, has been instrumental in the Milwaukee school choice program. She cited the following four goals for school choice:

  • win at the Supreme Court level;
  • protect and expand on gains in Wisconsin, Florida, and Ohio;
  • frame the issue and explain it as a matter of social justice and equal opportunity; and
  • build very strong constituencies at the state level.

Rebutting the negative portrayal often given to school choice by the public school lobby, Mitchell noted some areas of recent progress. These include improved coverage by the mainstream media, the emergence of BAEO, advertisements featuring the “voice of parents” whose children are succeeding in choice schools, and measurable data showing how school choice programs have improved public schools. Mitchell suggested an Hispanic organization analogous to BAEO is needed and could have a significant impact on the movement.

Terry Moe, senior fellow with the Hoover Institution and author of Schools, Vouchers and the American Public (Brookings Press, forthcoming), explained that Americans are very uninformed about vouchers. A recent Public Agenda survey discovered that two-thirds of the American population simply don’t understand what vouchers are or how they work. People who support vouchers in opinion polls may not understand vouchers well enough to vote for them when given the chance.

Almost all ballot initiatives begin with popular support, Moe said. With some issues, like taxes, people tend to be very clear about where they stand, and campaign advertising has little effect. But on many other issues, including vouchers, people don’t have firm views, and when opponents create doubt, the old cliché works: “When in doubt, vote no.” Defeats such as those in California and Michigan should not be viewed as opposition to vouchers, but uncertainty about them.

Moe explained that the huge advantage in initiative contests goes to opponents, which, in the case of school choice initiatives, are primarily the heavily funded teacher unions. He suggested that addressing the issue through state legislatures would be a more effective way to approach school choice in most instances. Moreover, Moe explained, Americans generally oppose universalism with regard to vouchers. Our society tends to be risk-averse and will not tolerate programs that are too big or change things too radically. Thus, Moe believes smaller programs targeted to low-income children provide the best beginning point, with a goal of moving gradually to a more universal system.

Disagreeing with Moe’s take on the initiative process, Mackinac Center Senior Vice President Joe Overton noted “Michigan is home to the most repressive constitutional provisions against school choice.” For that reason, Overton regards the initiative process as the best mechanism for fomenting change there.

Overton discussed two important phases of the Proposition 1 initiative campaign in Michigan. Phase one was the early campaign among opinion leaders and financial supporters. Governor John Engler opposed Proposition 1, and that probably hurt efforts to gain the necessary backing on both the public relations and financial fronts. Phase two was the propaganda campaign–taking the message to the masses. On that front, Overton believes too little educational work was done through the media.

The message to be drawn from Proposition 1’s defeat in Michigan is, “We need to educate, educate, educate people on school choice,” said Overton. He and other participants agreed this should include consideration of tax credits and other alternatives within the school choice movement.

Karen E. Loss is a research associate with the Education Policy Institute in Washington, DC. Her email address is [email protected].

For further information . . . on the future of the school choice movement, consider the following resources:
Site for grassroots choice activists, offering tips on getting started, speaking out, researching your cause, researching your opponents, fundraising, marketing and public relations, and identifying and organizing allies.
Information from Howard Fuller’s Institute for the Transformation of Learning Office of Research 2000
School choice educational information from the Mackinac Center
Institute for Justice information on school choice legal cases