By Jay Mathews
Monday, March 23, 2009
I'm not trying to be a hypocrite. I have supported D.C. school vouchers. The program has used tax dollars well in transferring impoverished students to private schools with higher standards than D.C. public schools. But it has reached a dead end. Congress should fund the 1,713 current voucher recipients until they graduate from high school but stop new enrollments and find a more promising use of the money.
My problems with what is formally known as the D.C. Opportunity Scholarship Program are political and cultural, not moral. The program provides up to $7,500 a year for private-school tuition for poor children at an annual cost of about $12 million. Vouchers help such kids, but not enough of them. The vouchers are too at odds with the general public view of education. They don't have much of a future.
A few years ago, I debated this issue with Robert Enlow, president and chief executive of the Friedman Foundation for Educational Choice. He argued that students from low-income homes would benefit greatly if more of them had vouchers. I said I agreed. I said I also thought my tennis game would be several notches higher than its sorry state if I practiced occasionally. Unfortunately, because of strong voter preferences for public schools and my own congenital laziness, neither is going to happen.
Voters have rejected voucher plans every time they have appeared on state ballots. The margin against them was 2 to 1 in California and Michigan in 2000. Conservatives, who tend to support vouchers as a way to rescue education from government control, thought their voucher proposal might win in heavily Republican Utah in 2007. But even there, the discomfort with tax money going to private schools brought defeat, 62 to 38 percent.
Even if we had unlimited funds for voucher students, there would not be enough spaces in private schools for them. Nobel laureate economist Milton Friedman, father of the voucher movement, argued that once people saw how well his idea worked, voters would endorse it, more private schools catering to vouchers would be started and public schools, because of the intense competition, would improve.
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