Lessons Learned on the Voucher Front

Published September 1, 1998

Using a military analogy to derive winning strategy and tactics in the struggle for parental choice in education, Daniel McGroarty reviews a number of recent school choice campaigns in a new booklet published by the Milton and Rose D. Friedman Foundation, Voucher Wars: Strategy and Tactics as School Choice Advocates Battle the Labor Leviathan. The publication is the second in the series “Issues in School Choice.”

Among the lessons identified by McGroarty:

Know Who You’re up Against

McGroarty questions whether many voucher advocates have any idea of what they’re up against: more than three million public school teachers, nationally networked, poised to respond to any challenge to their monopoly, and with an amply-funded war chest. In California’s 1993 Proposition 174 voucher campaign, pro-voucher forces were outspent $15 million to $1 million and attracted support from just 30 percent of voters, compared to opponents’ 70 percent. This year, supporters of California’s Proposition 226–the paycheck protection initiative–were defeated 53-47 and outspent $24 million to $4 million.

Mobilize a Grassroots Army

To fight such a formidable opponent requires a large army, or a smaller army with moral fervor. Critical to the initial voucher successes in Milwaukee and Cleveland was the significant involvement of parents in the campaign. In both cities, the parents were poor and vastly outnumbered by their opponents, but they had a powerful moral message that legislators could not ignore: I care about the education of my child.

Prepare for the Long March

Recognizing that achievement of a long-term goal sometimes requires the establishment of a viable beachhead as an interim step, McGroarty argues that, from a political standpoint, means-tested vouchers and other targeted programs may be “a way to win and hold new ground in the long march to universal school choice.” For example, limited programs providing tax deductions for education expenses were expanded in Minnesota in 1997 and in Iowa in 1998.

Truth Is a Casualty

California’s June 2 vote on Proposition 226, which occurred after the publication of Voucher Wars, would have provided McGroarty with even more examples of dirty tricks by opponents of choice:

  • Although California’s unions portrayed Proposition 226 as being run and funded by “out-of-state” interests, in fact it was run and largely funded by Californians. However, the unions themselves received over $8 million from out-of-state contributors–almost twice what Proposition 226 supporters spent on their entire campaign.
  • A union-sponsored telephone and mailing campaign falsely claimed that Proposition 226 would result in more police deaths because officers’ names would have to be made public. Proposition 226 had no such requirement.
  • The United Way of America issued a misleading legislative alert warning that passage of Proposition 226 was likely to lead to “a substantial drop” in charitable giving in the workplace. Three members of the United Way’s Board of Governors work directly for the AFL-CIO or its member unions.

Voucher Wars, by Daniel McGroarty, is available from the Milton and Rose D. Friedman Foundation, One American Square, Suite 2440, P.O. Box 82078, Indianapolis, IN 46282, 317/681-0745.

George A. Clowes is managing editor of School Reform News. His email address is [email protected].