Why School Choice Lost

by John J. Miller on August 10, 2010

in Articles,Politics

  • Sumo

November 4, 1993



The defeat of Proposition 174 in California Tuesday proves once again that school choice is a good idea whose time hasn’t come. The bill would have awarded schoolchildren a $2,600 voucher for use at virtually any private school in the state, but voters rejected it by a decisive 2-1 margin.

School choice boosters have already started rattling off dozens of reasons for the failure: They were wildly outspent by powerful special interests, activist teachers turned their classrooms into antichoice workshops, the media tarred supporters as religious fanatics, etc. All of these claims are to some extent true. But each misses the big picture: School choice failed in California because Republican voters didn’t want it.

This may seem a bit odd, since school choice has been a core GOP issue for many years. President Bush stumped for it in last year’s campaign and Empower America, a star-studded Republican outfit in Washington, made it a top priority this fall. California’s Republican Party also endorsed Prop. 174. Conversely, Democratic politicians, who almost universally oppose vouchers, once again marched in lockstep with teacher unions.

None of this mattered to California Republicans. Most suburbanites — the folks who make up the GOP’s rank-and-file — are happy with their kids’ school systems. Their children already earn good grades, score well on tests, and gain admission into reputable colleges and universities. Moreover, suburban affluence grants a measure of freedom in choosing where to live and thus provides at least some control over school selection. It’s not that suburbanites refuse to admit the country’s deep education crisis; they just don’t believe the problem affects them personally.

A recent poll by Phi Delta Kappa, an educational organization in Bloomington, Ind., reconfirmed this longstanding trend. In it, only 19% of suburbia awarded grades of A or B to the nation’s public schools, but 50% gave an A or B to the public schools in their communities. The last thing these satisfied parents want is an education revolution.

Although some surveys have shown strong support for private school choice — up to 70% in certain cases — they also reveal distinct class divisions. Vouchers become less popular as one moves up the socioeconomic ladder. A 1992 survey by the Los Angeles-based Reason Foundation showed that among households earning more than $60,000 a year, only 35% supported the concept of private school choice. Even fewer are likely to support a particular bill.

The antichoice crew in California exploited these divisions. They set up a strategic apparatus geared toward GOP voters, confident that their more liberal backers would fall in line anyway.

Republican tactician Rick Manter served as campaign manager for the No on 174 effort. Last year, he led Republican Bruce Herschenson’s energetic but losing Senate bid. The Republican consulting firm Nelson & Lucas also collaborated with the antichoicers. Together, they crafted a message tailored to the suburban skeptic. They conjured up financial worries over what Prop. 174 would cost the cash-strapped state, said it would create a new bureaucracy with no accountability, and showcased the kind of extremism the law might have permitted. According to some reports, a witches’ coven hoped to found a school for voucher students.

Republican Gov. Pete Wilson — no friend of California’s education establishment — eventually came out against Prop. 174, citing its possibly negative impact on the state budget. Chambers of commerce in Los Angeles, San Diego and San Jose publicly opposed Prop. 174 as well. Even Ronald Reagan refused to come out for or against the initiative, despite heavy lobbying from the pro-voucher camp. Given these factors, it’s no wonder California Republicans refused to push school choice over the top.

The California defeat marks strike three for school choice voter initiatives. Statewide ballots in Oregon and Colorado said no to choice by wide margins in 1990 and 1992, respectively. In the weeks leading up to the California vote, many choice advocates across the country admitted in private that Prop. 174 would fail. The goal, they said, was to reach the 40% approval mark — a big improvement over the Oregon and Colorado efforts and a hopeful sign for the future. But they failed.

School choice actually has a narrow and fragile constituency: conservative ideologues, the urban poor, and parents with children already enrolled in private school. These groups will continue to put points on the board every time school choice comes up for a vote, but they hardly represent a winning coalition. School choicers clearly have to lobby the suburbs, where their lack of support currently dooms them.

To do this, they should stop lecturing the suburbs about lousy schools. For starters, the suburbanites aren’t likely to believe it. More important, they view the charge as defamation. Since they often take an active role in their children’s education, arguing that their schools are bad is tantamount to calling them crummy parents. It’s a slap in the face and it won’t ever win votes.

Instead, school choicers will have to make pocketbook appeals. Success in the suburbs will require emphasis on the financial savings that a good school choice plan will deliver. In California, Prop. 174 suffered from a number of credible studies that cast its financial merits into doubt. Next time, a more aggressive alliance with business groups, taxpayer organizations and professional economists — from crafting the law to getting out the vote — might help.

The first successful school choice referendum will also rally young people. Organizers in Oregon detected a generation gap among their supporters. “Twentysomethings are the people who have just seen public schools from the inside. They know there’s a problem,” said Steve Buckstein, a leader of the state’s choice movement and president of the Cascade Institute in Portland. Perhaps the dazed and confused MTV generation is ready to teach its elders a lesson in education reform.

Grassroots organizers might ultimately want to move away from popular referendums, which are not an option in every state anyway. School choice actually seems to fare somewhat better in state legislatures. The commonwealth government in Puerto Rico recently approved a school choice plan worth up to $10 million. An ambitious Pennsylvania bill lost a close vote in 1991, but a revised version could squeak through next year. The state legislature in Texas rejected a choice measure in the spring, but it might prove more receptive if the pro-voucher Republican George W. Bush defeats incumbent Democratic Gov. Ann Richards in next year’s election. Local movements are also an option. Polly Williams’s Milwaukee plan is an obvious model; Jersey City Mayor Bret Schundler might improve upon it soon.

The financiers of the choice movement might even want to look at setting up special foundations. Private groups in Atlanta, Indianapolis, San Antonio and several other cities are now in the business of awarding scholarships to children for a private school education. Imagine what the $2.5 million spent by Yes on 174 could have meant to a similar organization in, say, South Central Los Angeles or Oakland. At the very least, the choice movement should borrow from these groups’ vocabulary: “Scholarship” sounds so much more appealing than “voucher.”

The private school choice movement is at a crossroads. Supporters have successfully turned choice into a national issue, but their efforts have yielded only a string of high-profile defeats and just a handful of small victories. They must now gain some ground, even if it comes in the statehouse or city hall, rather than at the ballot box. Without a change of tactics, school choice will be a permanent loser.

Mr. Miller is associate director of the Manhattan Institute’s Center for the New American Community in Washington.

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