Where Al Shanker Stood: School Vouchers

With all of the recent debate about school voucher proposals, we decided to reprint this January 1997 New York Times column by Al Shanker in which he discusses inconsistencies in many conservatives' position on vouchers.

\We are used to seeing conservatives go all out in support of vouchers. But what about a conservative who argues against providing public money to send students to religious and other private schools? Timothy Lamer, whose op-ed piece, "A Conservative Case Against School Choice," recently appeared in the Washington Post (November 6, 1996), is such a novelty. Lamer thinks that conservatives who push for vouchers are ignoring or distorting their principles. He intends his article as a wake-up call to conservatives, but it should suggest to members of the public generally that there is something fishy about the conservative crusade for vouchers. How come conservatives are pushing something so alien to their usual point of view?

Here are some voucher arguments advanced by push-for-vouchers conservatives that go against the conservative grain:

  • If Chelsea Clinton can ... Many conservatives, some strongly, are currently using an equity argument to push vouchers. They say that if Chelsea Clinton can choose a top private school, it is not fair to deny this opportunity to poor children. As Lamer points out, this is a remarkable departure from conservatives' usual position in regard to social inequities. How often have you heard conservatives saying that poor children should have access to the same kind of medical care as their own kids? In fact, conservatives are generally quite comfortable with the idea that some Americans have more and better choices than others: "Inequality is a fact of life." Furthermore, they generally believe that, when governments attempt to even things out "they end up harming everyone." What happens to this suspicion of government when it comes to vouchers? Why aren't conservatives worried that "vouchers [could] harm private schools instead of helping public schools?"
  • Other "civilized" countries do it ... Conservatives argue that other countries finance the education of students in religious schools, so why don't we? But if they argue this, why don't they also urge that we raise taxes here? After all, people in these other countries are taxed at much higher rates. And why aren't they agitating for state-run health care and a centralized education system employing unionized teachers-just like these other countries have? Lamer says the "other countries" argument is a surprise because conservatives are not given to holding up the practice of other nations as examples. Their position is that we are successful precisely because our government does not engage in this kind of meddling. Why, he wonders, are conservatives making an exception with vouchers?
  • If Pell grants are OK ... Conservatives ask why, if Pell grants give public money to college students who attend private and religious colleges, we can't give vouchers to K-12 students. Lamer is amazed at this argument. He points out that conservatives rail constantly against entitlement programs­ like Pell grants. They complain that these programs grow every year and are nearly impossible to cut without paying a "stiff political price." So why introduce another such program? Comparing vouchers with Pell grants also raises, for Lamer, the specter of government regulation. Why aren't conservatives worried that vouchers will lead to government regulation of private schools?
  • They have a constitutional right … There are even conservatives who say that poor people cannot freely exercise their religion unless they can send their children to religious schools — hence the need for vouchers. Why then don't these conservatives insist that the government override money for printing presses so poor people can exercise their freedom of the press? Conservatives agree, along with everybody else, that "poor people have the right to freely exercise their religion," but, Lamer says, it is totally out of character to find them insisting that poor people "have the right to do it with other people's money."

What's going on here? As Lamer points out, conservatives who campaign for vouchers are disregarding some strongly held beliefs. They are working hard to increase government involvement in education when that is something they usually condemn. Why aren't they nervous about what might happen to private schools when the government steps in to see how public money is being spent there?

Some conservatives would undoubtedly answer that they are pushing vouchers out of a concern for the well-being of poor children. But can we take this seriously? Conservatives have always opposed legislation as a remedy for social inequities. And if this concern for poor children is so powerful that it leads them to ignore one of their basic principles, why do they continue to oppose legislative remedies in other areas where painful inequities exist — like housing and health care?

Maybe there is a simpler answer to the conservative turn about on vouchers that Lamer finds so perplexing. Perhaps vouchers are really a stalking horse for some other long-term plan — like replacing public education with a private system in which parents would bear most of the cost of educating their children. Lamer does not speculate about motives, but the rest of us might recall an old story about the Greeks, who offered an unexpectedly handsome and generous gift to the Trojans — a large wooden horse.

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