This week, President Bush signed into law a new education bill, touted by many as "landmark" reform. The bill essentially boils down to increased federal funding and more standardized testing. Failing schools will be rewarded for their failure with increased funds. It is a typical liberal "throw more money at the problem" response. As proof, Senator Ted Kennedy is enthusiastically on board.
Education Secretary Rod Paige said in April 2001, "...after decades of business-as-usual school reform, too many of our nation's children still cannot read. After spending $125 billion of Title I money over 25 years, we have virtually nothing to show for it. Fewer than a third of fourth graders can read at grade level." What we were offered this week is more business as usual, with a much higher price tag.
The final bill has little in common with the goals proposed by President Bush during the 2000 campaign. It's probably the best the President could expect with Democratic control of the Senate. Most notably absent are provisions that would have helped parents to move their children from a failing public school to a private school of their choice.
The voucher issue is at the core of Bush's stated goal to improve education by holding schools accountable for failure. Parental choice equals accountability. If I eat at a restaurant and get bad food or poor service, I show my displeasure by eating at a different restaurant. Competition weeds out the bad places, keeps the good places on their toes, and encourages all to improve.
Under the education bill signed this week, the dollars, and therefore the power, remain with education bureaucrats, not with parents. It's good that parents will have more information about how the schools are performing, but it would be far better if they could do something with that information, like take their kids to a better school.
But the idea of vouchers has been a hard sell. A voucher initiative on the California ballot in 2000 was soundly defeated. Proposition 38 would have given $4000 for any child in California to attend the school of their parents' choice. Democrats, teachers' unions, and other proponents of ever-increasing budgets without accountability allied with secular activists to vigorously oppose the measure.
President Bush should not give up on the ideal of aiding parents who want to choose a private school for their children. Though education funding is mostly a state and local government issue, presidential backing would help further the goals of educational choice - accountability, improved standards, and higher achievement.
The main objections to school choice initiatives have been "separation of church and state" arguments, cost concerns, and the fear that government funding of private schools will lead to government meddling in private schools. These objections can be most effectively countered by offering parents means-tested educational tax credits instead of vouchers.
Given that parents, not the government, would direct vouchers to the schools they choose, the church/state argument is weak, but some left-leaning judge can usually be found to accept the argument. With a tax credit, no interaction between parochial school and state would take place, so the 1st Amendment argument is eliminated. It could also be pointed out here that federal Pell Grants, which provide college tuition for needy students, are already permitted at universities with religious affiliation. If a needy student can use federal assistance at a private university, why not at a private high school?
Since no funds would flow directly from the government to private schools, as they would if schools accepted vouchers, there would be no basis for bureaucratic meddling in the policies of those private schools. There is valid concern that such meddling would take away the freedom that makes private schools work.
Objections related to cost could be countered by means testing the tax credits, targeting assistance to lower income families. One of the weaknesses of Proposition 38 was that it would have provided a $4000 voucher to every child in California. The image of millionaire parents using taxpayer dollars to send their kids to a posh private school was an easy target for opponents of vouchers.
Targeting the grants also makes practical sense if the aim is to improve education for those kids that most need the improvement. In many cases it's the poorest kids that are getting the poorest education.
Voucher proposals have met tough resistance wherever they've been proposed. It's time to achieve the underlying goal, better education through competition, with a new approach. Tax credits rather than vouchers are the best means to reach that goal.