It’s National School Choice Week, and voucher advocates continue to push their ideological agenda at the highest levels of government. Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.) today proposed sweeping legislation that would direct $24 billion in public funds to block grants for state voucher programs. Families living under the poverty line would receive an average of $2,100 per eligible child to apply toward tuition at any accredited school.That’s a substantial chunk of the federal government’s total education funding, and if the bill passes as proposed, there will be no oversight to govern just how it’s being spent. The Washington Post reports that schools in receipt of government funds wouldn’t have to report whether they’re passing or failing.Even worse: They also wouldn’t have to follow current federal strategies for improving failing schools. That would effectively exempt voucher schools from landmark bills like No Child Left Behind and Race To The Top, and it would leave the government without any means to ensure that its education funds are actually being used for their intended purpose.Alexander’s colleague, Sen. Tim Scott (R-S.C.) proposed another school choice bill that would specifically allocate government funds to students with disabilities and military families.They’re extreme proposals, but they’re not without precedent. House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.), long a supporter of vouchers, has proposed similar legislation in the past, and so has U.S. Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.).Education policy expert Diane Ravitch flatly condemned the bill on her blog. “Bottom line: the Alexander plan will destroy public education in the U.S.,” she wrote. “Do not be fooled: this is not a conservative plan. This is a radical plan. It will send public dollars to backwoods churches and ambitious entrepreneurs.”The plan’s backers would like the public to believe it’s really about helping minority students. Frederick Hess, a researcher at the pro-voucher American Enterprise Institute, told The Post, “Even on vouchers, African American and Latino legislators and parents are going to be excited. It’s a natural opportunity for Republicans.”The Republican Party, of course, does not traditionally succeed in capturing minority votes. And vouchers do not traditionally succeed in capturing any votes at all. In fact, there’s widespread public opposition to the concept of “school choice.”A recent PDK/Gallup poll showed that 70% of Americans oppose voucher programs. That’s the highest number recorded in the poll’s 45 year history. And vouchers haven’t fared any better at the ballot box.
Voucher initiatives have failed every time they’ve been put to a public vote, with opposition spanning all racial groups. When voucher programs become law, it’s because legislators have prioritized an ideological agenda over the wishes of their constituents.It’s obvious that there’s no public mandate for vouchers. And these programs certainly don’t help minority students. In Washington, D.C., administrators couldn’t account for one out of every five voucher students. What’s more, students from failing public schools – often schools with majority African-American student bodies – were “underrepresented” in the voucher program. And there’s evidence that these schools are failing partially due to the voucher program, which has directed student numbers, and funding, away from already troubled public schools.These results aren’t unique. The Department of Justice, concerned by evidence that Louisiana’s voucher program had effectively re-segregated its public schools, requested in November that a federal court review the situation.And in North Carolina, a coalition of parents, teachers, and school districts filed suit against the state’s voucher program. Among their complaints: the program violated provisions of the state constitution prohibiting discrimination on the basis of race, ethnicity, national origin, gender or disability. Voucher schools, unlike public schools, are exempt from these anti-discrimination standards.Ravitch is right: The Alexander plan is about destroying public education, not helping minority students. And if the GOP thinks its support for “school choice” will win the minority votes it so desperately seeks, it’s delusional. It’s time to acknowledge reality and put the failed voucher agenda to bed. Students deserve better.