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Emerging "Voucher Left" Could Alter School-Choice Debate


by Brandon Dutcher


Oklahoma Council for Public Affairs

OCPA Perspective November 1999



Broadly speaking, the political right has usually favored publicly funded school vouchers, believing they will bring much-needed competition to public schools. The left has largely opposed them, saying they will drain the public schools of dollars and bright students.


But there are signs the political landscape may be changing.



Earlier this year in a New York Times column, Charles Wheelan chided his fellow Democrats for being "on the wrong side of the school choice issue." The New Democrat magazine warned in its May/June issue that "Democrats and others who attack vouchers and defend dysfunctional public schools are getting clobbered." And writing recently in The New Republic, Harvard professor Paul E. Peterson encouraged his fellow liberals to "give vouchers a second, more serious look."


Indeed, many already have. It's worth remembering that it was Democrat state legislator Polly Williams, coordinator of Jesse Jackson's presidential campaigns in Wisconsin, who started this ball rolling with school-choice legislation in 1990. Other black legislators around the country are also voucher advocates.


The Pennsylvania Teamsters have endorsed a voucher plan in the Keystone State. Arthur Levine, president of Columbia University's Teachers College, has called for a limited voucher experiment. Former Atlanta mayor and UN delegate Andrew Young is a voucher proponent, as is former Democrat congressman Floyd Flake of New York. The head of the Colorado Springs NAACP recently expressed support for vouchers (and got canned for it); even NAACP president Kweisi Mfume indicated a willingness to consider a limited voucher proposal floated by journalist Matthew Miller.


"Vouchers have a long but unappreciated pedigree among progressive reformers," Miller pointed out in the July issue of The Atlantic. "Democrats should see large-scale urban voucher programs as an opportunity, not a threat."


Granted, the enthusiasm on the left for vouchers is not widespread. "Right now it's a splinter movement on the left, not a log," says Hubert Morken, professor of government at Regent University and co-author of the new book The Politics of School Choice.


But some are convinced the voucher left will continue to grow, and may in fact wrest control of the voucher movement from the right.


"The growing support for vouchers among the left is a reflection of political realities," says education researcher Mike Antonucci, director of the Education Intelligence Agency. He believes "the voucher movement will eventually peel off layer after layer of its left-wing opposition," and "vouchers will be instituted and grow across the country."


Voucher foe Marshall Fritz, director of the Separation of School and State Alliance, believes that in order to keep African-Americans voting Democratic, the left will find it necessary to take over the voucher movement.


What will happen next is obvious, Antonucci says. "We have the ten-year example of charter schools to look at. Fight them on the beaches, fight them in the towns, but when you lose, do your level best to turn them into carbon copies of your own power base - the public schools."


Indeed, The New Democrat is already encouraging lawmakers to attach "access and accountability" amendments to voucher legislation, thereby "effectively turn[ing] voucher-supported private schools into public charter schools."


Which, incidentally, is precisely why many (but not most) on the political right have opposed vouchers all along. He who pays the piper calls the tune, they point out, arguing that vouchers will come with strings attached which will emasculate private schools.


Vouchers are a "big-government program that increases, not reduces, the role of government in education, and will turn any institution taking vouchers into a carbon copy of state schools themselves," says economist Lew Rockwell, president of the free-market Ludwig von Mises Institute and one of the right's most articulate voucher opponents. He sees vouchers as "another move toward the complete socialization of the American educational industry."


Time will tell if the voucher left will grow large enough to function as a "fulcrum for change," in Morken's words. If it does, it will be interesting to see what that does to the voucher right.


Dutcher is research director of Oklahoma Centerfor Public Affairs.  His columns have appeared in over 100 newspapers throughout U.S.  This article moved on the Knight Ridder wire and has appeared in the Cincinnati Enquirer, the EdmondSun, the Kingfisher Times & Free Press, and several other newspapers across the U.S.  Mr. Dutcher may be reached at (405) 843-9212.

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