Vouchers Again. And Again. And Again.


School vouchers: An idea whose time has come. And gone. And come. And gone. And, maybe, come again.

The voucher idea: The government, which spends thousands of dollars per student for public schools, offers some of those dollars to families to spend at schools of their choice. Proponents say this would pressure public schools to improve and offer everyone an opportunity the rich already have, the ability to opt out of bad public schools.

Californians vote Tuesday on a proposal which would give $2,600 -- half of what the state spends on average for a public-school pupil -- to each student attending private or parochial schools. If vouchers pass in California, the concept would pick up national momentum. But while the California vote has led to rediscovery of vouchers recently, they've been a hot item at intervals of roughly 10 to 12 years.

In the early 1970s, the Nixon administration was pushing the idea, offering big grants. The plan got serious looks in a number of places but ultimately was approved only for a limited test in a small school district in California called Alum Rock.

In the early 1980s, the idea -- a good fit with the free-market ideology of the new Reagan administration -- was back. The last decade has seen an expansion of programs allowing choice within public schools, but the idea of vouchers for private schools again went nowhere.

Why are vouchers attractive enough to make a comeback every decade, but not so attractive that anyone actually tries them?

School choice is like balancing the budget: Almost everybody seems to like the idea in the abstract, but any particular plan gets a lot of people upset.

Vouchers have attracted backing from conservatives and liberals, making it seem that the concept could win broad support. But the voucher plans by the free-market conservatives look very different from the plans by those who see vouchers as a way to promote equity.

It's really two different concepts with one name. Some plans offer maximum freedom, others promote greater fairness.

The equity-oriented plans (one voucher proposal, for example, would require participating schools to choose students by lottery) raise the possibility of more of the bureaucracy and regulation already blamed for stifling public schools.

The free-market plans virtually guarantee public money going to something that lots of members of the public would find distasteful. Some would draw the line at teaching religion. But it gets wilder than that; a coven of witches in California says it would open a pagan school if vouchers were approved.

"Basically, we would run a regular curriculum -- reading, English, math, science," said Debbie Babcock, who described herself as a priestess in the witch group. "But along with that, we would be able to teach witchcraft. It gives us the chance for our children to not be exposed to things that we feel are detrimental, like the Christian values or the Hollywood version of the bad witch."

Maybe, as free-market fan George Will suggests, the witch school idea is just a ploy cooked up by voucher opponents. But witches or no witches, operating a free market in education isn't easy.

When shopping for, say, laundry detergent, you can buy any brand for a few dollars, and if you don't like it, you can switch brands the next week. The consequences of making a bad choice are small.

Also, the supply of various brands can be adjusted quickly to meet consumer demand. There's room in parochial schools, but the most selective private schools are already full. Voucher supporters say new schools could start, and they could, but expanding the supply of schools takes considerable start-up capital.

Debates over vouchers tend to be so abstract that even the freedom-equity dilemma doesn't get explored. Beyond that, there are lots of details that can sink a plan.

The most prestigious private schools charge tuition well above the $2,600 California is proposing as a voucher (for that matter, well above the $5,200 California spends for each public-school pupil). So a plan like California's is hardly going to allow poor kids access to the best private schools. Under a voucher plan, should teachers have to meet state certification requirements? Should the state mandate teaching of English and history?

Questions like these may well sink the California plan. If so, watch this space about 2004.

M. William Salganik edits the Perspective section of The Sun.

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