Lessons Must Be Learned from Voucher Bill Defeat

Published June 8, 1995

“Too much of what ultimately matters in a child s education is decided on the basis of political muscle by groups whose primary interest is not necessarily the child.”

Over the past six months, not a day has gone by that I have not reflected on these words in meetings, both public and private, on the state of public education in America today. The words were first written by Dr. Sam Redding of Lincoln, Illinois–one of the country s leading authorities on how children learn.

Dr. Redding s understanding of the situation was affirmed in Springfield, where yet another pilot school voucher bill was rejected. The bill, which passed the Illinois Senate earlier this year but was defeated in the House on May 18, would have made it financially possible for 2,000 low- income, public school students in Chicago to attend any public or private school they and their parents chose. Now, these 2,000 children will have no choice but to attend ineffective, overcrowded, and often unsafe public schools.

I was up late one night in early May, feeding my seven-month-old son and watching a congressional hearing on C-SPAN. Henry Cisneros, director of the Department of Housing and Urban Development, was testifying on the Clinton administration s plan for public housing. Cisneros passionately called for providing residents of public housing with vouchers that would allow them to purchase housing in the private marketplace. He said something to the effect that, “public housing in this country will never be adequate until the people who live there are able to leave, to use the final threat of exit power, the ability to take the tax dollars and go somewhere else.”

“What about public schools?!” I shouted to nobody but my baby. Doesn t the same principle apply there? Isn t adequate public schooling as important as adequate public housing?

And then two weeks ago, I was speaking with a former Illinois state senator, a longtime supporter of educational choice. “Down in Springfield, there is an amazing balance of competing interest groups when it comes to virtually every major state issue,” he said. “On health care reform, you have powerful interest groups on both sides of the issue. Same story on tort reform, agricultural issues, abortion, and so on.”

“The only area in which there is no balance in this state is education. There are groups down in Springfield forcefully articulating the concerns of teachers, school boards, administrators, and education bureaucracies. But there is no group in Springfield that truly represents the consumers of education–the parents, families, and children. I can t think of any other issue that rivals education in its interest group lopsidedness.” Opinion polls consistently report that a large majority of Illinoisans support educational choice. Many parents and policy experts believe that choice represents the only truly just and effective form of school reform. And yet an incredibly timid, unobtrusive pilot voucher bill failed once again to become law in Illinois. Why are vouchers rejected out-of-hand by our policymakers in Springfield?

Because there is no sizable, diverse, organized, and vocal constituency demanding that parents in this state be given the right, and allowed to take the responsibility, to choose which schools their children attend.

When this “army” is finally called together, comprehensive educational choice in Illinois will become law. Fortunately, it s that simple. Unfortunately, nobody to date has been able to create such an army in Illinois. Supporters of educational choice in Illinois are often divided by strategic and ideological concerns. The business community, much to its shame, largely sits out the debate, fearful perhaps of offending the teachers unions powerful friends in government and the media. Is it any wonder that the teachers unions and entrenched educational interests have been able to swat away choice bills whenever they are brought up?

It s time to develop political muscle for parents and children. We know that our urban public school systems are hopelessly broken. We need to continue to say so. We know that unless the parents of children in public schools are able to threaten to enroll their children in competing private schools, the public schools will never be held accountable. We need to continue to say so.

Finally, we know that Illinois parents, children, and angry taxpayers far outnumber representatives of teachers unions, school boards, and education bureaucracies. We need to be patient enough to turn this loosely defined groundswell into political muscle: 50,000 parents, voters, and taxpayers demanding change. Imagine representatives of the Chicago Teachers Union telling a group of 5,000 low-income, minority parents in Chicago that they have no right to decide where their child attends school!

Let s go into the neighborhoods, and identify those parents and children who want–and need– vouchers the most. Let s be patient and get to work.

Joseph Walsh is executive director of the Center for Rebuilding America’s Schools.