Chicago Sun-Times, February 1, 2008: Voucher foes hurt poor kids

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Chicago is gearing up for another round of tumult from the closing of possibly more than a half dozen failing schools. Whatever the Chicago Public Schools administration does to solve this problem, the parents of students have no choice but to cope.

Middle-class families exercise school choice by loading up a moving van and relocating to a suburb with good schools. The rich can afford private schools. Only the poor — often minorities in inner cities with under-performing schools — are stuck with little or no choice.

President Bush tossed out an idea Monday to open up choice for poor kids but, as usual, it was rejected out of hand by Democrats and teacher unions. The $300 million Pell Grants for Kids proposed by the president in his State of the Union message is modeled on the popular Pell Grant program that helps poor kids go to college. Basically, the Bush plan would turn over tax dollars to parents to send their children to private schools.

In other words, vouchers.

Bush’s proposal was shouted down by Democratic lawmakers and unions with the usual complaint that vouchers pull resources away from urban schools.

This argument has been rebutted by studies, many of them compiled online by the Milton and Rose D. Friedman Foundation for Educational Choice. No school district that has adopted choice has had its budget reduced, the foundation says. For example, it reports that in Milwaukee, per-pupil spending jumped from $6,316 in 1990-91, when its program began, to $10,375 by the 2003-04 school year. Other studies show vouchers improve student performance. Milwaukee recorded better graduation rates, and Harvard studies of privately funded voucher programs in New York and Dayton, Ohio, revealed better math and reading scores for African-American students. What’s more, research shows competition from vouchers improves public schools.

Vouchers remain an appealing idea with the public. A just-released poll done for the Friedman Foundation, the Illinois Policy Institute and seven other groups finds 51 percent of people in Illinois favor vouchers and the number was 73 percent when the aid is limited to low-income families or kids in failing schools.

So why doesn’t the voucher movement find traction?

For one thing, there’s opposition from unions supported by their allies in the Democratic Party and civil rights movement. Conservatives believe in the sovereignty of the individual and trust in his or her ability to make the right decisions. Liberals believe individuals need help from government in confronting big challenges or, especially, big interests like business. There’s some truth in that. But in this case, liberals are aligned with the big interests — teacher unions and the education monopoly. Yes, teachers and school administrators are committed to educating children. Still, their position is complicated by self interest, i.e. unions putting job security first.

Unions poured $3 million into Utah last year to defeat a voucher referendum. Yet union opposition alone can’t explain why this conservative idea went down in defeat in a very conservative state.

The Illinois poll offers a clue. Despite support for vouchers, 60 percent of respondents also said vouchers take money from public schools or hurt public education in poor areas. The simple truth may be the middle class, comfortable with its choice, isn’t willing to take a chance with a program it thinks — despite the evidence otherwise — might harm the schools it chooses for its kids.

And with liberals and civil rights leaders opposed to school choice even for the poor, it’s hard to be optimistic about the future of vouchers.

The poor are once again left out in the cold.

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