As we got started, Weaver reminded me that I was sitting in the (quite plush) corner office of “the president of the largest union in the country.” The NEA has 2.7 million members. I asked him what he thought about an accountable voucher proposal, which from a union’s perspective mixes the worst of both worldsvouchers and tests. His tone instantly got testy. “I don’t think anything about it,” he said. “And the reason I don’t think anything about it is because once I begin to give credence to the idea, then people will begin to think that it is something that is reasonable.”
Moving on, Weaver’s primary objection to vouchers is the common argument that they drain money from the public schools. I asked him how they drain money when vouchers only take money (and in the case of Washington, $3,000 less than the District’s $10,852 per-student spending) that would have been used to educate a student that school no longer has to educate. Weaver quickly responded, “Did the heat bill go down? Did the light bill go down?” Asked for examples of associated costs beyond electricity, his response was, “I don’t know,” 30-second pause, “I don” know. I hadn’t thought about that.”
On the prompting of his helpful press aide, Weaver added that schools that lose students to vouchers might not be able to afford state-of-the-art technology or foreign-language teachers. Of course, I thought, a lack of access to PowerPoint and Latin classes is not what’s driving parents like Tracy Tucker–who compared D.C. public schools to prison– into the voucher camp. But I kept that thought to myself.
One point in the interview, however, gave me some hope. Weaver was objecting that President Bush’s voucher proposal would only help a limited number of students. On the facts, he may be right. Yet it’s perverse to argue that because vouchers can’t help every disadvantaged student, they shouldn’t be used to help some. Mayor Williams likens that argument to saying that doctors shouldn’t bother treating sick patients and instead tell them to hang on while he researches a cure. In any event, I decided to call Weaver’s bluff. I asked if he’d support some kind of voucher if every student in D.C. had access to one. “If they would give [all] 67,000 students a voucher, yeah,” he said.