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Elizabeth Warren's Position on Vouchers: A Review


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Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren's education plan landed on Monday. Due to her status as a front-runner in the 2020 Democratic primary, and because she released the blueprint months after fellow contenders Joe Biden and Sen. Bernie Sanders released theirs, people gave it a lot of scrutiny—especially the sections covering the ever-controversial area of school choice.

One conversation it sparked came from her plan's contention that the nation must "stop the privatization and corruption of our public education system" and keep money from being "diverted" away from public schools through vouchers. 

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But supporters of school choice cried foul. They pointed to what Warren and her daughter Amelia Warren Tyagi wrote in The Two-Income Trap, a book they authored in 2003, as evidence that she once backed a voucher system for parents seeking education options for their children, but has now abandoned that position for political expediency and to please teachers' unions. Her campaign has denied that she's changed her views.

We covered this issue back in February. But it bears further examination, in part because there are a few political controversies involving Warren (perhaps not unusually for a national politician) that deal with allegations that she has changed her views or her descriptions of her life story for personal benefit. 

A quick summary of the evidence about Warren's position on vouchers can be described in the following two bullet points. 

  • Is there evidence Warren once supported "vouchers" and school choice of some kind? Yes.
  • Is there evidence she backed the kind of private school vouchers that exist in states like Florida and Ohio? No.

'Public School Voucher Program' 

In 2003, Warren and Tyagi wrote that while the concept of public education was "deeply American," the ideal had become flawed because it lay at the heart of an unequal economic system. While many schools might technically be public, they said, many parents effectively paid tuition for good public schools through their ability to purchase a home in their attendance zones. They called this dynamic "a crisis in middle-class family economics." Other parents, effectively, were getting stuck with bad schools. 

So how to solve it?

"A well-designed voucher program would fit the bill neatly," the two authors stated, adding that "fully funded" vouchers would "relieve parents from the terrible choice of leaving their kids in lousy schools or bankrupting themselves to escape those schools."

If you stopped reading there, you might think that Warren backed policies in which state governments provide public revenue directly to parents to help them pay for private school costs. But that's not what Warren envisioned.

After stating that "voucher" has become a "dirty word" because of its association with private schools (a view that gives a hint of where the writers are headed), the two authors propose the following:

There is another alternative, one that would keep much-needed tax dollars inside the public school system while still reaping the advantages offered by a voucher program. Local governments could enact meaningful reform by enabling parents to choose from among all the public schools in a locale, with no presumptive assignment based on neighborhood. Under a public school voucher program, parents, not bureaucrats, would have the power to pick schools for their children. ... Children who live in a $50,000 house would have the same education opportunities as those who live in a $250,000 house. 

The authors go on to say that such a change would be "a shock to the educational system, but a shakeout might be just what the system needs."

Essentially, what Warren and Tyagi wanted was an open enrollment system of public schools, in order to break the link between home values and school quality. Should such a vision become a reality, they argued, the U.S. housing market would be forever altered, in many ways for the better. No voucher for private schools is proposed. Instead, there's an emphasis on preserving tax revenue for public schools.

You don't need to take our word for it. Last month, Matthew Ladner, the senior research strategist at the Arizona Chamber Foundation and a veteran school choice advocate, arrived at the same conclusion. Ladner reviewed Warren's views in an article for redefinED, an education website focused on school choice policies. In summation, he said Warren campaign's claim that she does not and has never backed private school vouchers was "correct."

"Although Professor Warren used the term 'voucher,' what she called for was basically the equivalent of an open enrollment system," Ladner wrote.

Ladner was responding to a column by David Brooks in the New York Times in which Brooks said Warren once held nuanced views on key issues but had now become a monotonous bullhorn for left-wing policy. Ladner's article notes that open enrollment policies are "tragically understudied."

As a senator, Warren has not supported private school choice; her 2020 platform is critical of charter schools in several respects. Warren has praised charter schools in Massachusetts, yet also opposed a 2016 ballot initiative that would have lifted a cap on charter expansion in the state.

Warren's Heart 'In the Right Place'

Supporters of private school vouchers might say Warren's arguments about escaping failing schools also apply to parents who want a voucher for their children to attend private schools. Why, they might ask, would Warren and Tyagi limit parental choice only to public schools? 

Although that question represents a critique of Warren's 2003 argument, it doesn't function as evidence that Warren once backed private school vouchers but has now cycnically rejected them for political gain. Ladner, as it happens, wrote that Warren's "heart was in the right place" back in 2003 when she proposed an open enrollment system. 

Wondering about where Warren sent her own children? In 2003, a Wharton Magazine article stated that Tyagi "grew up trailing her law professor parents, attending nine public schools between kindergarten and 12th grade." But we don't know more details about where Warren's children attended school; the campaign has not responded to requests for that information. (More on candidates' education background and where they sent their children here.) 

So is Warren fully insulated from charges of the dreaded "flip-flop" on the school choice front? Not quite.

That vision for open enrollment in public schools Warren and Tyagi outlined more than 15 years ago does not appear in Warren's 2020 education platform. In her plan, Warren does decry the extent to which local property taxes lead to inequitable school funding, but doesn't propose the solution she did in The Two-Income Trap. Clearly she supported a significant disruption of the traditional public school system that might not thrill some of her allies today.

Distinctions within these characterizations matter, of course; for example, many charter school advocates do not support private school vouchers. But why didn't Warren propose open enrollment for public schools in her platform? Does she no longer support such a system? If not, why?

As of Friday afternoon, Elizabeth Warren's campaign had not responded to questions about the senator's views on open-enrollment policies. 

Photo: Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., in 2018. (John Minchillo/Associated Press)

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