Voucher Wars Will Continue

Published July 1, 2003

Four recently published books neatly describe the bitter struggle facing many education reformers who have been advocating parental choice using school vouchers. Those reformers regard vouchers as the most effective way to improve public schools and serve the interests of children and families … but teacher unions are implacably opposed to vouchers.

Voucher Wars

The persistence of that opposition is evident from Clint Bolick’s new book Voucher Wars: Waging the Legal Battle Over School Choice (Cato Institute, 2003). Bolick offers an informative account of a 12-year fight against teacher union lawyers trying to snuff out newly enacted school choice programs from Florida to Arizona and from Milwaukee to Cleveland. Those 12 years stretch from the spring of 1990, when Bolick first contacted Wisconsin State Rep. Polly Williams about defending her pioneering Milwaukee Parental Choice Program, to June 2002, when the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in the Zelman case that the Cleveland school choice program is constitutional.

During those 12 years, Bolick and his colleagues at the Institute for Justice litigated 16 school choice cases, encompassing 40 court arguments and 80 briefs totaling some 2,400 pages. Most of those cases involved new school choice programs whose primary aim was to give low-income children in failing public schools an opportunity to transfer to a private secular or religious school of their parents’ choice. The teacher unions’ central and recurring objection to those programs was that they violated the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, requiring the separation of church and state.

Although the Zelman ruling means the teacher unions lost their Establishment Clause argument, it doesn’t mean an end to their legal battle against school vouchers, as Robert Chanin, chief counsel for the National Education Association (NEA), made abundantly clear at a Manhattan Institute Forum three years ago.

“The legal battle will not end,” said Chanin. “We will abandon the Establishment Clause, and continue to challenge voucher and choice programs under state constitutions on whatever grounds are available to us–from lofty principles such as church-state separation, to ‘Mickey Mouse’ procedural issues like the single-subject rule.”

True to Chanin’s word, on May 20, 2003, the NEA and other groups challenged Colorado’s new voucher program–the Opportunity Contracts program–saying the state constitution prohibits the use of public funds to support religious schools.

School Choices

While Bolick’s book is about the battle to sustain existing school choice programs, John Merrifield’s book, School Choices: True and False (The Independent Institute, 2002) is about school choice as an education reform policy.

Merrifield concisely describes the need for education reform, the rationale for school choice, how choice would improve public education, the necessary features of choice programs, the lack of many of those features in existing school choice programs, and how many school choice advocates have misrepresented and oversold these limited programs.

Competition is the only “true reform catalyst,” notes Merrifield, who also points out this critical component is present in only a limited way in most school choice programs and proposals. Despite all the fanfare from school choice advocates about “competition” in K-12 schooling, Merrifield says, the idea hasn’t really been tried. The rules and regulations governing existing choice programs effectively keep competition on a very tight leash, with severe restrictions not only on pricing but also on student and private school participation.

Merrifield’s advice to school choice advocates is two-fold: To push for parental choice programs that really do unleash competitive forces in the education marketplace; and to refrain from describing highly restricted school choice programs as tests of market forces or examples of “full school choice.”

Breaking Free

Vouchers do not change the way taxes are raised for K-12 education; they change only the way those funds are distributed. In the traditional public school funding arrangement, public school officials allocate funds directly to schools. Under a voucher plan, funds are allocated to students in the form of vouchers; schools receive funds only indirectly, when parents choose those schools and students bring their vouchers with them.

In the struggle to enact school choice programs, attention naturally has been focused on using school choice to help in worst-case situations: low-income minority students in inner-city schools. The value of Sol Stern’s thoughtful new book, Breaking Free: Public School Lessons and the Imperative of School Choice (Encounter Books, 2003), is that it covers not only how voucher programs serve low-income children in Milwaukee and Cleveland, but also how they would serve the needs of all children by empowering parents to take a meaningful stand against an unresponsive public education system.

We all need the “power to exit” unsatisfactory schools, says Stern, drawing on the experience of having his own children educated in the New York City public schools.

One key lesson he learned was that even the “best” schools his children attended “were burdened with too many unproductive or dysfunctional teachers, harmed by irrational personnel and recruitment practices, and affected by a deadening, systemwide bureaucratic culture.” For example, although students were accepted into Stuyvesant High School only on academic merit, union rules placed teachers in the school on the basis of seniority, not competence, leading to situations where unqualified teachers were transferred in.

The Worm in the Apple

One of the “perplexing discoveries” Stern made about his son’s public elementary school was that it employed three or four teachers who were too dysfunctional to be trusted with children and thus were assigned “baby-sitting” or patrol duties. Just as at Stuyvesant, the teacher union contract required the school to accept teacher applicants with the most seniority, even if they were incompetent, and the union contract made it virtually impossible to fire such teachers.

The teacher unions and their domination of American public education policy–and American politics–are the subject of Peter Brimelow’s provocative new book, The Worm in the Apple: How the Teacher Unions Are Destroying American Education (HarperCollins Publishers, 2003).

Brimelow, a financial journalist, first placed a spotlight on the teacher unions with a 1993 Forbes article, “The National Extortion Association.” His book provides extensive examples of how the teacher unions have integrated their sphere of influence on public education from teacher contracts approved by local school boards to education bills approved by the U.S. Congress.

Brimelow draws a parallel between the way the Standard Oil Trust controlled the U.S. oil industry through its state-level subsidiaries a hundred years ago and the way the national teacher unions now control the U.S. education industry through their state affiliates, or “Teacher Trust.”

Every parent would benefit from reading this book to better understand why common-sense school reforms never go anywhere, but it is must reading for school board members who need to understand what is driving the union local they negotiate with over teacher contracts.

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