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It is possible to make a school voucher system work for everyone in the area

By Frederick Hess - posted Monday, 8 September 2003

School voucher proponents are on a hot streak. Colorado recently enacted the nation's most ambitious voucher program, the first victory following last summer's U.S. Supreme Court ruling that voucher programs are constitutional. It appears Texas may soon enact major legislation. Some giddiness is to be expected.

Nonetheless, in a fit of self-righteousness, voucher proponents may be heading for a train wreck. Strange as it may seem, voucher advocates are in much the same place as that of the architects of the Great Society a generation ago. Voucherites find their ideas ascendant, possess dynamic spokespersons, can credibly claim to be promoting social justice, and yet…

Like the architects of the Great Society programs before them, they are puzzled as to why suburbanites and middle America haven't embraced their proposals. Increasingly, voucher advocates criticize white suburban families for being insufficiently concerned with the education of disadvantaged urban children.


This is no way to wage a policy fight. Thirty years ago, the Great Society's champions berated middle-class America smack into the arms of their opposition. Enthralled by their own virtue, liberal reformers forgot about simple democratic notions like self-interest and skepticism. They believed that if they could only make middle America see its selfishness, voters would fall into line.

It didn't happen that way. Showing the good sense typical of a democratic majority, they opted for Republicans and moderate Democrats who addressed their concerns rather than belittling them. As a result, much that was promising in the Great Society fell into disrepute.

Conservative proponents of school vouchers risk repeating this mistake. While vouchers are routinely supported by 65 per cent of urban residents, support levels are barely half that amount in the suburbs. Voucher proponents have grown increasingly frustrated with this resistance, and have yet to deal with the fact that suburban resistance to choice is entirely reasonable and unlikely to be nagged away.

Families that purchase homes in good suburban school districts typically buy, in large part, because of the "seat license" it confers in local schools. Choice-based reforms allow students to attend schools where their family hasn't bought a "seat license", reducing the value of existing licenses. Duke University economist Thomas Nechyba has modeled how this dilution could dramatically alter property values by making homes in bad districts worth more and those in good districts worth less.

Those who own homes in districts with good schools risk losing tens or even hundreds of thousands of dollars in home equity, may no longer be able to assure their children services they had purchased, and will find that local schools may no longer enjoy first crack at quality teachers or provide as uniformly desirable a peer group. One can be troubled by existing inequities and still recognize that these families may justifiably feel they have fairly purchased their advantages.

If we recognize that homeowners in good suburban districts will tend to oppose choice-based reform, will likely prove pivotal in determining the fate of choice-based reform, and that even copious amounts of finger-wagging reprimands won't change their minds, what are the implications?


Choice proponents will have to respect rather than ridicule the concerns of homeowners in high-performing districts. The requisite compromises may prove a frustrating compromise for those committed to social justice and may require some soul-searching on the part of voucher proponents.

More specifically, there are four strategies proponents might use to win over middle America. One option is to either convince voters that their schools are worse than they think, meaning they don't have much to lose, or that competition will so improve all schools that everyone will come out ahead. It's unlikely that such a rhetorical approach will go very far.

A second option is to link choice-based reforms to other proposals that would appeal to the suburban voter. Choice-based legislation might explicitly address the desire for some schools to provide child-care services, alternative school-day schedules or school calendars, advanced courses that are not available or are oversubscribed in the community, and so on. Such measures would ensure that families in high-performing districts have a reason to support the program.

A third, more dramatic, measure is to provide some kind of compensation to homeowners whose property rights are constricted by state action. One compensation strategy might be to provide a tax deduction for the amount of value that a home loses in the first few years after the adoption of choice-based reform. Such a move would offer some succor to those whose property value falls sharply, especially for working families that had scraped to purchase a home in a district known for its schools.

Finally, the area impacted by school choice can be limited to troubled districts, so as to immunize other voters from the change. This has been a favorite tactic, as in the case of the Milwaukee and Cleveland voucher programs-in which city children are only permitted to use their vouchers to attend schools in neighboring districts if the suburban districts approve (which they rarely do). Of course, such a course leaves the suburban-urban divide essentially unaltered.

For school choice supporters, seething indignation is not the way to make a real difference for America's children. To frolic down that morally superior path is to opt for the self-indulgent over the substantive, a course that cost the architects of the Great Society their electoral and, eventually, their moral authority. Whether proponents of choice-based reform fare better is in their hands.

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Article edited by Bryan West.
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This article was first published in The New York Sun on 30 April 2003.

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About the Author

Frederick M. Hess is Resident Scholar with the American Enterprise Institute.

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