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Conservatives are Abandoning Vouchers? Seriously?

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The Century Foundation's Greg Anrig penned a piece in Washington Monthly recently titled: "An Idea Whose Time Has Gone". And the subheadline reads: "Conservatives abandon their support for school vouchers."

If you can't figure it out from the headline, the gist is that the voucher movement is dead or dying, and conservatives have given up hope.

While vouchers aren't explicitly campaign related, the issue is volatile and polarizing enough that it often crops up in state and local races—and even Barack Obama has mentioned the "V" word before.

And while I don't want to argue the merits of vouchers or school choice, I feel compelled to argue that conservatives have not abandoned support for vouchers, and what's more, this idea's time has not gone.

Anrig writes: "In recent months, almost unnoticed by the mainstream media, the school voucher movement has abruptly stalled."

I'm not sure if Education Week counts as "mainstream media," but I just wrote a story stating almost the opposite: "Choice Surges Despite States' Fiscal Woes." Georgia has created a new tax credit for families and companies that donate to private school voucher funds. Louisiana approved a new tax deduction for families that pay private school tuition.

And in another story posted today online, I detail how Florida, in the midst of one of its worst budget crises ever—which has resulted in historic cuts to K-12 funding—managed to find $30 million to expand a corporate tax credit program that grants taxpayer-funded scholarships (aka vouchers) to students.

Furthermore, the controversial political action group All Children Matter, which targets anti-voucher candidates in state and local races, is still very active.

Last year, voters in Utah defeated a proposal that would have created a universal voucher program in their state. What the conservatives have given up on is the word "vouchers." The idea of vouchers is still very much alive.

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Just to be clear, my article focuses on Milton Friedman's conception of a system in which parents would be given government vouchers to pay for schools of their choice, including private religious schools (to him, ideally all schools would be private). In the 53 years since he has come up with that idea, only three U.S. cities have carried it out -- Milwaukee, Cleveland, and Washington, DC. In each of those cities, as even some conservatives have begun to acknowledge, the voucher system failed to induce the virtuous market forces that Friedman envisioned. There's little evidence that either the students who moved from public to private schools performed better, or that the public school systems improved as a result of the competition.

In all eight states that have held referendums on school voucher programs, the idea has been resoundingly trounced. State courts in both Florida and Colorado in the past few years declared their voucher programs to be in violation of state constititions.

As I tried to emphasize in the conclusion of my article, the threat of voucher programs has helped to spawn all kinds of experimentation, including the sorts of initiatives that you describe in your post, as well as charter schools, the standards and accountability movement, public school choice and other ideas. But those bear only passing resemblance to the model Friedman described, or to the programs implemented in the three cities that have pursued his model.

The conservative movement's energy and money has shifted away from vouchers toward charter schools -- a much less radical idea. That doesn't mean all voucher advocates have thrown in the towel -- most of those who remain are fervent ideologues who, like Don Quixote, will never give up on their quest. But the big picture is that the school vouchers idea that Friedman put forward has lost much of its momentum. It has failed where it's been implemented, some advocates are having second thoughts, some state courts have shot it down, it continues to lose by wide margins in state referendums, and right-wing money and energy is now much more focused on pushing charter schools -- which enroll many times the number of students who participate in voucher programs.

Best, Greg

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