Commentary Magazine

Schools, Vouchers, and the American Public by Terry M. Moe

Schools, Vouchers, and the American Public
by Terry M. Moe
Brookings. 350 pp. $29.95

Wherever vouchers for school children have been put to a vote, they have been defeated. This has prompted the head of the National Education Association, the country’s largest teachers’ union, to announce that the year 2000 witnessed the “death knell” of the voucher movement.

The defeat was most conspicuous in California. In 1993, less than one-third of California voters in a statewide initiative said yes to school vouchers. According to the proposal’s supporters at the time, the trouble was that they had lacked sufficient financing to defeat the stern opposition of the California Teachers Association. But in 2000 essentially the same proposal reappeared on the ballot, this time backed heavily by a wealthy Silicon Valley venture capitalist. More than $30 million was spent on behalf of the initiative, but it went down to the same inglorious defeat.

An initiative in Michigan that would seem to have enjoyed a much greater likelihood of success met a similar fate. This proposal was focused on children in schools that performed poorly, and it had the active support of the Catholic Church, the Michigan Chamber of Commerce, and many black ministers. Its backers also outspent the local teachers’ union. But despite these political advantages, less than one-third of the voters said yes. And so, too, with virtually every other such measure promising significant educational reform, including efforts in Colorado, Oregon, and Washington.

Terry Moe, who with John Chubb published an influential 1990 book arguing in favor of parental choice in education, cannot but be upset by the limitations on choice created by this steady defeat of voucher plans. But if so, there is no hint of it in his newest book—a thoughtful, leisurely, and dispassionate review of why voucher plans have failed in public opinion and what might yet make them succeed.



The answer to at least the first of these questions is easily stated: Americans are not libertarians. The economist Milton Friedman deserves universal admiration for having first formulated the basic case for school choice in a famous 1955 essay, but Americans are not enamored of choice alone. “Americans like the public-school system,” Moe writes simply and truly.

Indeed, they may like it too much, since they are often willing to ignore studies that show how poorly American students do in international comparisons. But whether or not Americans are shortsighted in this regard, they also have their reasons. They like the idea of children being educated together—it appeals to their democratic instincts—and they think that the state should have some say in regulating what goes on in schools. If a local school system does poorly, they have also developed methods of coping. The wealthy can buy their way into private schools, and the middle class can make school quality an important factor in deciding where to live. As for people without school children, they can ignore the whole issue.

At this point, a libertarian economist might well conclude that Americans are following their own rational self-interest after all. That is true, but only up to a point. Even those Americans whose children do not attend public schools persist in attaching positive social value to them—just as people attach value to the condition of the economy even when they are not themselves worried about employment. Similarly, Americans persist in supporting the public schools even when, as Moe shows, they think private schools do a better job, especially at such matters as racial diversity, social justice, the teaching of morality, and the tolerance of religion. Those least happy with the public schools are poor, inner-city Americans (who also tend to lack the means to do much about their unhappiness); but a lot of Americans who are not poor also worry about the public schools.

Where voucher programs have been put in place, Moe tells us, it has come about in large measure because ordinary politics—not the advertising-driven politics of initiative campaigns—has brought together people with school troubles and people who want to help them. This has been done most conspicuously in Milwaukee, where Polly Williams, a black state legislator determined to help her constituents, teamed up with conservative business and political leaders and the Bradley Foundation to put in place a school-voucher program that now enables many thousands of children to attend religious schools. Wisconsin’s highest court has upheld the plan and, in my view, there is a reasonable chance the U.S. Supreme Court will do the same on appeal, even though critics allege that it violates the “establishment of religion” clause of the First Amendment.

As Moe demonstrates, the Milwaukee model has been followed elsewhere. In Cleveland, a Democratic city councilwoman teamed up with a Republican governor to persuade the legislature to approve a voucher plan for low-income, predominantly black children; a federal district judge has struck down the program, but this case, too, appears to be headed to the Supreme Court. In Florida, Governor Jeb Bush successfully enacted a statewide program that gives vouchers to children in “failing schools,” though this is on its way as well to the Supreme Court as well. In New Jersey, Bret Schundler, now the Republican candidate for governor, won the mayoralty of Jersey City in part because he backed a voucher program, though his efforts so far have not won state approval.

Most important, in Moe’s view, a number of wealthy benefactors have set up voucher programs in several cities that now give scholarships to about 50,000 children. Since the money is private, it is hard to see how the effort can be successfully challenged in court.



One of the most interesting things about these developments is that they mobilize support from constituents of liberal organizations. The NAACP, for example, is opposed to vouchers, but many people who could be (and perhaps are) members of the NAACP support them.

I keenly recall speaking on the subject of vouchers to an Aspen Institute audience composed largely of Democratic members of Congress. They were adamantly opposed. I tried to make the case that no one should be against vouchers without first seeing how they worked, something that the opposition of people like them was making it harder to do. My audience was unimpressed. I then suggested that their own voters were increasingly favoring vouchers; this they dismissed as the consequence of “propaganda.”

I think they are wrong, and I think Moe agrees with me. But the problem is not only on their side of the political aisle. Most conservatives and most Republicans have few connections with the inner-city poor. When they endorse vouchers, it is largely on the basis of ideology. Now, ideology is not irrelevant to this matter, but ideology alone will not get the job done, as the votes in statewide initiatives quite clearly show.

Supporters of vouchers often express dismay at the fact that they rarely get any help from Republican leaders who supposedly believe in markets. In California, Republican elites did not back vouchers; in Michigan, Governor John Engler would not endorse them; in the nation’s capital, President Bush has not pushed hard for them. These folks may like markets, but they like electoral victories even more, and they know something that academic supporters of vouchers often forget—namely, that the American public, though it says it favors “choice,” also likes the public schools, and worries that vouchers may reduce spending on and collective control of those schools. As a politician, you cannot favor vouchers in a way that makes it appear that you want to undo the public-school system.

All of this suggests to Moe—and to me—that a top-down strategy will not work, at least for the most part. It may work for the city of Washington, D.C., where Congress controls local policy and Bill Clinton is no longer in office to veto a congressional effort in that direction. Elsewhere, however, if vouchers are to succeed, the effort must work from the bottom up.



This book should be studied carefully by anyone interested in the fate of vouchers, and especially by anyone who thinks they are a good idea. It is written not as a piece of campaign strategy but as a careful analysis of the views of nearly 5,000 Americans, interviewed in 1995. And it is written by a first-class political scientist who knows how and why the American political system always (and, to me, desirably) makes it hard for the proponents of any new idea to get it accepted.

Moe not only understands the issues; he understands the limits, and the deceptiveness, of opinion polls. Phi Delta Kappa (PDK), the international association of educators, has been publishing survey data about vouchers for decades, but the results have been compromised by how the questions are worded. Nor are conclusions consistent from poll to poll. A 1992 survey by the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching suggested that most public-school parents were opposed to vouchers; in the same year, the National Catholic Educational Association (NCEA) produced polls suggesting that public-school parents favored vouchers, and so did the Gallup organization a few years later. NBC/Wall Street Journal polls have indicated that public support for vouchers is weak. And so it goes. Needless to say, critics of vouchers have embraced the Carnegie and NBC/Wall Street Journal studies, while supporters have embraced the NCEA and Gallup studies.

Moe patiently explains why these polls have come to such different results. As in the case of PDK polls, the main problem resides in the wording of the questions—that, plus the fact that many voters have not thought very much about the issue and thus have no well-considered view. They opine off the top of their heads. He also points out a truth that any supporter of an initiative campaign ought to heed: if your polls show that you are way ahead before the election campaign begins, rest assured that this support will dwindle, and perhaps disappear, as the campaign gets under way. Initiative campaigns seem to have one clear effect: people manage any uncertainty they may have by voting no.

In his own survey, Moe asked questions about vouchers in many different ways and at different points in the interview. His results, I suspect, are thus better than those produced by PDK, the NCEA, or NBC/Wall Street Journal. But are they entirely reliable? He is uncertain, and so am I. Vouchers must first become a big feature of American school politics before people will have settled views on the matter. And that is another reason for supporters to rely on private ventures and bottom-up local campaigns. Although conservatives generally lack the political skills to mobilize poor, inner-city parents, that too can be changed.


About the Author

James Q. Wilson, a veteran contributor to COMMENTARY, is the Ronald Reagan professor of public policy at Pepperdine University in California.

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