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Unexpected Barriers to Vouchers

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Even amid a surge of pro-voucher laws around the country, a number of educational and political forces are likely to complicate and possibly impede the future growth of private school choice, a leading supporter of those policies predicts in a new essay.

Teachers' unions, and Democrats, like the Obama administration, typically are held up as the chief enemies of voucher expansion, writes Chester E. Finn, president of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, which backs private school choice. And their opposition to vouchers is not in doubt.

But a number of other complex factors are likely to skew and possibly undermine the private school choice landscape going forward, writes Finn, a former Reagan administration official and widely published author. Among them:

  • Resistance among some private school operators, who are wary of sacrificing their independence and individual standards as they have testing-and-accountability requirements placed on them as a condition of receiving vouchers;
  • Provisions in state constitutions—often called Blaine amendments—that block or restrict public funding from going to religious institutions;
  • A lessening of influence among "what was for decades the strongest lobby in favor of vouchers," Finn says—the Roman Catholic Church. He says the church is "neither nearly as strong as it once was nor nearly as committed to revitalizing its own schools. It seems to have lost most of the wind from its sails."
  • Overall worries about private schools having selective admissions processes and excluding minorities, or students with disabilities;
  • The poor performance and secrecy of some private education entitites, including charter operators, who tend to damage the reputation of the entire industry. "The word 'private' has grown even more suspect in American education circles today than it was yesterday," the Fordham official writes. And:
  • Unease among some state and local Republican advocates of choice about the impact of charter, voucher, and inter-district transfer policies on suburban schools.
Finn says voucher programs should be built to serve the neediest students first, and should be held to account for producing results.

"I do expect the momentum in this direction to continue," he writes, "But I don't expect it to accelerate. And that's not just because of hostility from Messrs. Obama and [Education Secretary Arne] Duncan."

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