February 2011 Church & State | Featured

After the Republican Party made historic gains in the November elections, U.S. Rep. John Boehner (R-Ohio), soon to be House speaker, was much in demand in Washington, D.C.

It was telling, then, how Boehner chose to spend his time. On Nov. 15, he opted to use some of it meeting in the U.S. Capitol with school voucher activists who want federal funding for religious and other private schools in the District of Columbia.

Later, Boehner issued a statement on his blog backhandedly blasting public school teachers and administrators as a “special interest” and calling on Congress to reauthorize a controversial piece of legislation that grants vouchers for tuition at Washington, D.C., private schools.

“Education reform opponents now have an important choice to make: will they continue to stand with their special interest allies, or will they join us in helping to ensure more of Washington, D.C.’s most vulnerable students can obtain a quality education?” read the statement.

Boehner is now speaker of the House of Representatives, and it appears that he and his right-wing allies are determined to revive the D.C. voucher scheme. Prodded by the re-energized voucher lobby and well-heeled corporate interests that loathe all public services, the new Congress could pursue any number of bills designed to shift tax funding from public schools to private education. Legislatures in many states are also being targeted.

The D.C. plan looks to be ground zero for this new drive. Pitched as a five-year “experiment,” the program was pushed through a divided Congress in 2004. When it expired in 2009, President Barack Obama agreed to allow currently participating students to continue receiving vouchers until they graduate, but no new students were to be accepted.

Formally known as the D.C. Opportunity Scholarship Program, the voucher program allocated $14 million to provide tuition vouchers pegged at up to $7,500 apiece. Although limited to Washington, D.C., the program has great symbolic value for voucher boosters, who point to the plan in Congress’ back yard as evidence of the need for “school choice” in other places.

Six years after the plan went into effect, it’s clear that ideology has triumphed over data. Extending vouchers to students in troubled D.C. neighborhoods, voucher advocates claimed, would boost student achievement and lead to educational innovations.

In fact, studies of the plan have shown that it hasn’t lived up to the hype. A final study commissioned by the U.S. Department of Education found that voucher students were doing no better at math and reading than those who did not participate.

The plan has served mainly to prop up financially ailing Roman Catholic schools in Washington. The vast majority of students taking part are in religious schools. (Not all are Catholic. Some of the schools are Protestant, and there are even a few Muslim academies.)

The plan is not popular among D.C. residents. In November, upstart mayoral candidate Vincent Gray, who opposed vouchers during the campaign, handily defeated incumbent Adrian Fenty, a voucher advocate.

This isn’t surprising; D.C. residents have never backed vouchers. A voucher-like referendum on the city’s ballot in 1981 was crushed 89 percent to 11 percent, and a 2002 poll found that more than 75 percent of D.C. voters opposed vouchers, including 85 percent of African-American voters.

None of these facts has deterred voucher enthusiasts. The fight long ago became one of ideology, not results. Confronted with data like this, voucher boosters simply point to other surveys showing that parents are happy with the program – as if parental happiness is an equal indicator with student test scores and achievement.

Boehner was one of the original House cosponsors of the D.C. voucher scheme in 2004. As he pushes to reauthorize it in 2011, he’s likely to have plenty of allies in the new Congress. Among them is U.S. Rep. John Kline (R.-Minn.), the new chair of the House Education and Labor Committee.

“Congressman Kline is very focused on restoring the program,” Alexa Marrero, a Kline staffer, told The Washington Times in November.

In the Senate, U.S. Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman (I-Conn.) has pushed vouchers for years. Last year, he went so far as to propose adding a measure reauthorizing the D.C. plan to a jobs bill and then a measure funding the Federal Aviation Administration, but the gambit failed and the Senate rejected the proposal.

About a year earlier, Lieberman had introduced free-standing legislation to revive the program, euphemistically calling his bill the Scholarships for Opportunity and Results Act (SOAR). He vowed to press the legislation until it passed. (See “Voucher Obsession,” April 2010 Church & State.)

Lieberman has plenty of allies. A range of well-heeled organizations that dislike government involvement in education are working to “voucherize” America. Among them are the Heritage Foundation, the Cato Institute, Betsy DeVos’ American Federation for Children (AFC) and the Walton Family Foundation, founded by heirs of Wal-Mart founder Sam Walton.

Collectively, these groups and others pour hundreds of millions of dollars into voucher activism. Demonizing public education as bloated, inefficient, inflexible and wasteful is a major part of their strategy. (See “Sneak Attack,” September 2010 Church & State.)

Much of their propaganda is slick and designed to tug at the heartstrings. In Washington, a voucher front group called D.C. Parents for School Choice constantly brings children to rallies, congressional hearings and other events. Last year, the Heritage Foundation even bankrolled a series of ads in Washington’s mass-transit system featuring kids demanding vouchers.

Much of the propaganda is more anti-public school than it is pro-voucher. It’s also cleverly packaged and often even avoids the word “voucher,” a term that fails to resonate with most voters. (Backers have taken to using the word “scholarship” instead.)

The attack on public education has even reached America’s multiplexes. Last year, a documentary called “Waiting for Superman” was released attacking public education as a failure – one of several one-sided documentaries blasting public education that have been issued recently. (Others include “The War on Kids,” “The Cartel” and “The Lottery.”)

“Waiting for Superman” celebrated charter schools and portrayed public schools as inflexible and inefficient. As scholar Diane Ravitch pointed out, the film simultaneously argued that public schools don’t need more money while praising the achievements of a D.C. charter school called SEED that spends $35,000 per student – two thirds more than the city’s public institutions spend.

“Is our society prepared to open boarding schools for tens of thousands of inner-city students and pay what it costs to copy the SEED model?” asked Ravitch in an essay in The New York Review of Books. “Those who claim that better education for the neediest students won’t require more money cannot use SEED to support their argument.”

But voucher advocates aren’t just disseminating propaganda attacking public schools; they’re also moving on the legislative front in several states. Research by Americans United has uncovered drives for vouchers or other forms of tax aid to religious schools in many states, including Florida, Indiana, Pennsylvania, Nevada, New Mexico and others. (See “Voucher Vexation,” February Church & State.)

In the states, much of the pro-voucher activity is being led by a flock of newly elected Republican governors who favor education privatization. Pro-voucher forces are eager to seize the moment and are pooling resources. Citizens for Educational Freedom, a voucher front group, reported in November that representatives from more than 300 organizations that support government aid to private schools met in San Francisco last summer to plot strategy.

Attendees at the August confab, titled “Where’s the Outrage – Lighting a Fire Under the School Choice Movement,” were affiliated with outfits such as the Heritage Foundation, the Cato Institute, the Black Alliance for Educational Options and the Center for Education Reform. (The latter two organizations rely heavily on the Walton Family Foundation for funding, as does AFC.) Speakers included controversial political consultant Dick Morris and commentator Juan Williams, both of whom appear regularly on the Fox News Channel.

The groups agreed to hold a “National School Choice Week,” which took place Jan. 23-29. Personally endorsed by House Speaker Boehner, events and rallies were held nationwide in an obvious effort to create the appearance of growing grassroots support. One of them, a “townhall” meeting in Tampa, Fla., was scheduled to feature Religious Right strategist Ralph Reed. Other events listed Morris and Newt Gingrich as speakers.

“National School Choice Week” was chaired by Kyle Olson, a Michigan activist who runs websites attacking public education and teachers’ unions. Although Olson claims to be non-partisan, he is in fact a longtime Republican Party operative. Olson’s main activity is an entity called the Education Action Group, a small Muskegon-based outfit he founded in 2007 to distribute propaganda attacking public schools.

Olson’s group may be modest in size, but the forces behind it are not. The San Francisco voucher get-together was sponsored by the Gleason Family Foundation, a Kentfield, Calif., entity with assets of about $7 million. The foundation disperses money to a wide array of private and charter schools as well as to pro-voucher organizations; it is also vociferously anti-union.

Public documents show that in 2008, Gleason gave $100,000 to the Heritage Foundation, $50,000 to the Cato Institute, $100,000 to the Institute for Justice, $200,000 to the Alliance for School Choice, $25,000 to the Hispanic Council for Reform and Education Options, $175,000 to the Center for Education Reform and $25,000 to School Choice Wisconsin.

Gleason also distributed one of its largest grants, $600,000 to an anti-union group called the Center for Union Facts. Another anti-union front, the National Right to Work Legal Defense Foundation, received $40,000.

About 100 organizations endorsed “School Choice Week” ranging from right-wing behemoths like the Heritage Foundation and the Institute for Justice to smaller statewide groups. The National Catholic Educational Association, which has long supported vouchers, was among the endorsers, and the New Jersey Catholic Conference signed on as well.

Coordinated public relations efforts like this are the latest edge in a long-running campaign to shift tax funding from public schools to private education. The sums being spent are staggering, but the end goal remains the same: a system of private – mostly religious – schools funded by the taxpayer but still largely unregulated by the state and unaccountable to the general public.

The cast of characters hasn’t changed much over the years. Vouchers have always attracted two strains of advocates: One consists of religious school boosters who seek government aid to prop up sectarian education. For decades, this line of activism has been led primarily by partisans of the Roman Catholic parochial school system, the nation’s largest religious network of private schools.

The Rev. Virgil Blum, a Jesuit priest and political science professor at Marquette University in Milwaukee, led the voucher drive for many years. Blum died in 1990, but his activism lives on in voucher centers that carry his name and in a new breed of activists – some representing evangelical Protestant academies – who insist that the state should play a role in supporting religious education.

The second strain consists of libertarians who want to privatize as many functions of government as possible, including education. Motivated primarily by ideology and an unswerving belief that all government programs are bad, this camp was for many years led by the late economist Milton Friedman, who was its most prominent spokesperson.

The two factions have made for a sometimes uneasy alliance, but the partnership continues until this day despite differences in style and approach. The libertarian faction, for example, is fond of bashing teachers’ unions while Catholic social justice teaching has historically been pro-union.

Both camps are fond of smearing public schools. The religious camp labels the schools “godless” and complains of hostility toward religion. The libertarian side carps about bloated bureaucracies and inefficient programs.

Remarking on the possibility of vouchers in Missouri, Mae Duggan, a Catholic schools advocate and founder of Citizens for Educational Freedom, said, “We don’t want people teaching humanism. Secular humanism is the basis of the public schools. John Dewey and Herbert Spencer, the godfathers of the public schools, were atheists. They called themselves humanists. If people want atheist education, let them have it. But if people want religious education, they should be able to have that, too.”

In recent years, the voucher camp has drawn in a handful of African-American legislators and parents, who scorn public schools and argue that vouchers are the answer. (Ironically, private school vouchers were first implemented in Virginia as part of the state’s “massive resistance” to the Supreme Court’s desegregation of public education in 1954. The Virginia voucher scheme was struck down by the high court as a violation of the 14th Amendment’s equal protection clause.)

Most recently, groups like the Heritage Foundation and the Cato Institute, which favor a radical downsizing of the government, have become more prominent. The organizations are very well funded – Heritage has an annual budget of nearly $71 million while Cato’s is $20 million – and deeply connected to the conservative power structure in Washington.

In response, defenders of church-state separation and public education are also ramping up collaborative efforts. Americans United for Separation of Church and State co-chairs the National Coalition for Public Education (NCPE), a collection of more than 50 educational and civil liberties groups that oppose vouchers and other forms of tax aid to private and religious schools.

The Coalition, which has existed since 1978, scored an important behind-the-scenes win last year after advocates in Congress attempted to slip a voucher provision into the National Defense Authorization Act for 2011. The measure would have allocated vouchers worth $7,500 apiece for military families whose children have “special needs.”

Americans United’s Legislative Department is gearing up for other battles in Congress and in many state legislatures – and with Congress now leaning to the right, the organization expects to remain busy.

Ironically, the new voucher push comes at a time when many former advocates of the idea are stepping back from it.

Ravitch made headlines when she admitted that privatization had not delivered and backed other reforms instead. Around the same time, Sol Stern, a longtime voucher supporter in New York, began stepping away from the concept as well.

In a 2008 essay for City Journal, Stern admitted that vouchers haven’t delivered the kind of sweeping education reform advocates sought and were losing support politically. Most notably, Stern said, vouchers have not spurred inner-city public education to boost performance – a key claim of voucher advocates.

Stern, who still supports vouchers under certain conditions, wrote that in Milwaukee, site of the nation’s first voucher plan, “the evidence is pretty meager that competition from vouchers is making public schools better.” There has been, Stern wrote, “no ‘Milwaukee miracle,’ no transformation of the public schools, has taken place.”

Stern pointed to Massachusetts, where education reformers focused on changes to the curriculum and teacher preparation to boost student performance.

Voters have shown little interest in vouchers as well. When given a chance to vote on the concept through ballot referenda, they always reject vouchers, usually by a wide margin.

Even in Utah, considered the most conservative state in the nation, voters trounced a 2007 voucher scheme 62 percent to 38 percent. The proposal was backed financially by Patrick Byrne, the millionaire founder of the Internet retail giant Overstock.com.

After the vote, a furious Byrne, who poured $3 million of his fortune into the campaign, blasted Utah residents, asserting they had failed a “statewide IQ test.” He also accused them of not caring about children.

But the results should not have surprised Byrne. Since 1967, voters in 23 states have rejected vouchers and other forms of tax aid to religious schools at the ballot box. The results are often lopsided. A voucher vote in California, for example, went down in flames 71 percent to 29 percent in 2000.

AU Interim Director of Legislative Affairs Maggie Garrett said this level of public opposition is a powerful weapon for groups like Americans United. But she warned that defenders of church-state separation must not be complacent.

“We can win these voucher fights if we make it clear to people what’s at stake and mobilize them,” Garrett observed. “The challenge is to get the message through that vouchers undermine the separation of church and state, erode civil rights and do not improve educational outcomes.”