Williams is facing a problem with which nearly every Democratic urban mayor across the country struggles. Constituents are screaming for educational alternatives, and most of the options on the table have been exhausted, except, it seems, for one: vouchers. The Democratic Party has long opposed vouchers, more on political than policy grounds, but Williams’s choice should sound a very loud alarm as the Democrats head into Election 2004. Democrats are on the verge of losing the rhetorical battle in the politics of hope.

Parents like Tracy Tucker of Washington, D.C., aren’t supporting vouchers out of ideology but pragmatism; vouchers represent the hope for a better life for her two children. “I received a Pell Grant when I was in college,” says Tucker, a black single mom who works part-time and makes about $25,000 a year. “I really see this as an extension of those programs to uplift children at an earlier age. Right now, I’m looking at the school system and what it’s doing–it’s like sending your child to prison.”

Declared dead two years ago when Bush dropped a voucher component of his education reform bill to win its passage, vouchers are in resurgence. A year ago, the Supreme Court ruled that vouchers for private and religious schools do not violate the First Amendment. That eliminated a major hurdle for voucher advocates. Soon after, the Colorado Legislature passed a voucher proposal that goes into effect this month. Florida now has three voucher-type programs, and the decade-old Milwaukee voucher experiment is expanding.

Federal pilot programs like the one proposed for Washington, which Congress will take up as part of the budget battles this fall, offer a new route for voucher advocates. And discerning observers of the political scene can see the outlines of a key component of Bush’s reelection strategy. Declaring education “the next civil right,” Bush stole the education issue away from Democrats in 2000 by advocating tests as a way to measure the progress of schools and students in grades 3 through 8. Today he has pulled even with Democrats–45 percent to the Democrats’ 46 percent–when voters are asked whom they trust more on education. And even as war and security dominate the headlines, come election time, education will matter “a lot,” says Republican pollster David Winston.

“There’s been an increase in the number of issues voters are following, but I don’t think there’s been a decrease in concern about education.” Democratic pollster Celinda Lake agrees, noting that education will follow closely behind the economy as a key issue in voters’ minds. As 2004 approaches, Bush will argue that the federal government must give parents “more options,” chiefly by offering vouchers for the kids who need them most. It could prove to be brilliant politics, putting the Democrats on the defensive on what used to be their strongest issue and breeding discontent among African-American voters, a key Democratic constituency.

Democrats are in this position for two reasons. First, there is a deep (and not completely unreasonable) resistance among key Democratic constituencies to the idea that private school vouchers are the real answer to underperforming urban schools. But second, those same constituencies have failed to come up with serious alternatives to vouchers (other than the perennial demand for more money). “The Democrats better have something to say in response beyond the same tired ideas we’ve been talking about for the last few years,” warns Andrew J. Rotherham, who runs the education policy shop at the New Democrat Progressive Policy Institute. But Rotherham and others believe that there is a way out. With a couple of key policy tweaks, the Democrats could turn vouchers into their own issue in a way that would be more likely to help families like Tucker’s while at the same time sowing disarray within Bush’s conservative, pro-voucher base. For too long, vouchers have been a way for conservatives to shrink public education. Liberals can turn them into a way to expand it.

While founding father Thomas Paine was the nation’s first school-choice advocate, the modern notion of vouchers was the brainchild of economist Milton Friedman, who first introduced the idea in 1955 as a way to end the government monopoly on education. For years, its appeal was limited to middle-class white families eager to get their children out of newly-integrated public schools. There was little momentum behind vouchers until discontent over the American public education system erupted in the wake of the 1983 report “A Nation at Risk,” produced by the Reagan administration. Shortly thereafter, the free market-oriented Bradley Foundation, began funding two conservative scholars named Terry Moe and John Chubb to produce a book titled Politics, Markets and America’s Schools, which argued that the root cause of public education’s failures was bloated bureaucracy. Their solution: Give vouchers to poor children. Moe and Chubb’s argument inverted the politics of vouchers. Suddenly liberals were forced into the position of arguing that poor black kids in Harlem should be denied the opportunities available to wealthy white kids on the Upper East Side.

Modern vouchers took root in Milwaukee, which in 1991 launched the first voucher program aimed explicitly at lower-income families. The city of Cleveland and the state of Florida followed later in the decade. All three programs enjoyed strong grassroots support from poor, black, mostly urban families. But at the federal level, President Clinton managed to skirt the issue, preventing a split between the teachers’ unions and Democratic centrists. Instead of vouchers, Clinton introduced two new ideas. The first was accountability. As governor of Arkansas, Clinton had begun to enact regulations that specified what students should be required to know at each grade level and instituted a standard curriculum to match. In 1994, Clinton successfully enacted such standards at the federal level. This, too, was politically savvy. Republicans protested that the policy represented an encroachment of the federal bureaucracy, leaving Clinton as the defender of tough academic standards for all. “With hard work and high hopes, high expectations, you can go as far as your abilities will take you,” was his frequent refrain. In 1996, only 16 states had measurable standards in place. By 2000, 49 states did.

Clinton also relieved pressure for vouchers with a second idea: federal support for charter schools. Charter schools are public schools, open to all students, started by outside groups (universities, non-profits, etc.) that are given relative independence from district regulations. Charter schools introduced the notion of “educational choice,” but within the bounds of the public school system. The unions objected, but not too loudly, and with federal funding, the number of charter schools grew from one in 1992 to 2,000 by the end of the decade. In 1999, Clinton tried to go one step further by mandating that the states begin giving tests to see whether children were learning the proper skills. Republicans, realizing that their inattention to education policy had become a form of political suicide, blocked Clinton’s bill, keeping the issue alive for the 2000 elections.

During that year’s campaign, Bush–who as governor of Texas had also experimented with testing and standards–co-opted accountability under the banner of “compassionate conservatism.” While in 1996, only 16 percent of voters trusted Republican Bob Dole more than President Clinton on education reform, Democratic candidate Al Gore had only a four-point advantage over Bush in 2000. Using education to build up his centrist credentials, Bush negated a major Democratic issue, contributing to his election victory. Today, nearly 60 percent of voters view Bush favorably on education, and he polls higher among African-American voters than his Republican counterparts in Congress do. Once in office, he made good on his election promise by implementing standards and accountability at the federal level via 2001’s No Child Left Behind Act. When he highlights his domestic agenda in Campaign 2004, Bush will undoubtedly do a victory lap around his testing program and, if he’s smart, push vouchers as the next logical step. Democrats will immediately be on the defensive–as supporters of the status quo against the wishes of single black moms who want a better life for their children.

Indeed, the No Child Left Behind Act is quietly building up grassroots support for vouchers. In addition to tests, the law requires states to designate which schools aren’t performing well now, and incrementally give them a kick in the pants. Those schools that can’t do better eventually get shut down, and the students who attend them are sent to other public schools. But as it happens, there aren’t nearly enough slots in well-performing schools to accommodate all the students who are likely to be looking for a new classroom sometime in the next few years. (See Alexander Russo, “When School Choice Isn’t,” September 2002.) As school districts look around for places to put their students, they may find that private and parochial schools are among the few alternatives. Says Nina Rees, the deputy undersecretary of education who is responsible for the D.C. voucher initiative, “you have in effect created a constituency that could conceivably ask for private choice.”

Of course, just because parents may want them doesn’t necessarily mean that vouchers can deliver on the higher-quality education parents are looking for. Indeed, studies that have attempted to assess the educational attainment of children who take part in of existing voucher programs are, at this point, inconclusive. The most favorable assessments report significant but modest gains of 6 percentage points in reading and 11 points in math after students have spent three years in a voucher program, says Georgetown University public policy professor Patrick Wolf, a leading expert on voucher research. But other studies, he notes, “find no clear effect.” About the best that can be currently said for vouchers is that, according to most surveys, parents who choose the voucher route are 20 to 30 percent happier than their public school counterparts.

Another argument usually made for vouchers is that they create competitive pressures that force traditional public schools to improve in order to retain students. Here, too, the evidence is promising but thin. After a decade of competing with a local voucher program, students in the Milwaukee public schools are performing better than they were a decade ago, but still only 63 percent of third-grade students are reading at or above grade level and the gap between white and minority test scores has been growing. Harvard economist Caroline Minter Hoxby has found that in schools where two-thirds of the students are eligible for vouchers, test scores rise faster than their voucher-free counterparts. Still, no researcher has determined how much of the gains are due to competition versus reforms that would have happened anyway.

But if the best available studies have yet to confirm the greatest claims of voucher proponents, they have certainly not validated the worst fears of voucher opponents. Vouchers clearly don’t amount to a nuclear assault on the public schools. The Milwaukee public schools are alive and well, and their test scores have improved, not declined.

Perhaps the biggest obstacle to knowing whether vouchers improve learning, and insuring that they in fact do, is that private schools operate, by definition, outside the reach of the accountability mechanisms of public schools. Parents who put their children in well-regarded parochial schools may well be making a wise choice. But there’s no way to know for sure because such schools aren’t required to test the performance of their students–certainly not in ways that allow for apples-to-apples comparisons with public schools. Moreover, there are plenty of private schools for low-income students whose educational rigor is deeply suspect. Last year in Pensacola, Fla., voucher entrepreneur Art Rocker, who opened six schools for special education voucher recipients, gave up four of the six schools after he faced allegations from angry parents and teachers that he was pocketing state money and failing to provide students with textbooks and food.

The number of bad private schools will likely skyrocket if vouchers become more widely available on the conservative model–that is, with no strings attached to the private institutions that receive them. As more and more students flee inner city public schools with vouchers in hand, incompetent or unscrupulous “educators” can be expected to open up any number of private “schools” to take advantage of the new market.

According to a George Washington University study, Washington, D.C., charter schools have not, on average, performed as well as their public school counterparts on standardized tests. One, Associates for the Renewal in Education Charter School, is being shut down for its flagging test scores and 60 percent attendance rate. Another, New School for Enterprise and Development, was recently featured in a Washington Post story in which a teacher was listening to rap music from a boombox while supposedly teaching a history class. The Post also noted that, by new federal standards, one-third of charter schools would be considered failing, compared to one-fifth of D.C. public schools.

The big difference, however, between charter schools and private schools is that the former are established with self-correcting mechanisms of accountability. If a charter school fails to achieve its promise of better results, its school district has the power–increasingly acted upon–to shut it down. Washington, D.C., has shut down a total of seven charter schools to date. And districts and parents can know which charter schools are failing because, under Bush’s No Child Left Behind Act, children who go to charter schools have to pass the same performance tests as kids in regular public schools.

The way to insure that vouchers really work, then, is to make them agents of accountability for private schools that accept them. And the way to do that is to marry the voucher concept with the testing regime mandated by Bush’s No Child Left Behind Act. Allow children in either low-income or failing schools to go to a private school of their choosing, but only so long as that school participates in the same testing requirements mandated for public schools.

What would be the substantive effect of such a program? Broadly speaking, accountability would be the acid test for voucher proponents, forcing private schools to prove they’re providing the high quality education they claim to offer. Requiring the same tests for both public and private schools would give parents the comparable scores they would need to make informed choices about which schools are better for their kids–a Consumer Reports of sorts for K-through-12 education. It would also enhance the competition between public and private schools, pressuring both to improve if they want to attract or retain students. (To make the competition fair, private schools should also be required–as charter schools are–to accept all students who apply, rather than cherry-picking the preferable ones. Private schools that accept vouchers should also be barred from discriminating against the hiring teachers and staff for reasons of race, gender, or religion). Finally, comparable testing data would allow government, if it so chooses (and it should), to cut off the flow of vouchers to those low-performing private schools that consistently fail to improve–just as the No Child Left Behind Act requires the shutting-down of consistently low-performing public schools.

Besides being good policy, accountable vouchers are also good politics for Democrats. Championing the idea would not only put Democrats back on the side of low-income parents desperate for better schools for their kids. It would also shatter Bush’s political base. Conservatives would chafe at the notion of imposing federal regulations on a hitherto unfettered part of the private sector. Indeed, the money behind the voucher movement–including the referenda that failed in California and Michigan in 2000–comes from voucher purists who don’t want to see any restrictions placed on voucher money. “The reason private schools do better than public schools is that they have the flexibility of designing their own curriculum and using their own methods, which may be different than what the state test is after,” says David Salisbury, director of the Center for Educational Freedom at the CATO Institute. “Imposing the state test on private schools basically works to make them more like public schools. Consumers are the best way to hold private schools accountable, not political bodies.” Principled voucher supporters on the right, however, would find it difficult to object to the idea that private schools should be held accountable to the same performance tests Bush has imposed on public schools. “Voucher supporters are going to have to recognize that if they are going to have broad appeal and they’re going to take public money, they are going to have to accept very basic obligations,” notes Terry Moe, the voucher scholar.

Many ideologically driven conservatives have long been drawn to vouchers chiefly as a back-door way of shrinking the size and reach of government. Yet that is another reason why liberals should love the idea of accountable vouchers, for such vouchers would have the opposite effect. They would bring private schools into the public orbit, marshalling their resources toward the public good. Private schools that accept accountable vouchers would not only have to test their students like public schools do. They would also almost certainly find themselves choosing a similar curriculum to public schools because the tests are scored based on student knowledge of that curriculum. In these and other ways, private schools that accept vouchers will, over time, come to resemble successful charter schools– free of the more onerous bureaucratic rules (procurement procedures, seniority hiring mandates) that weigh down traditional public schools, but still reflective of and responsive to public demands.

Of course, the strongest argument for accountable vouchers is they might open up better educational opportunities for at least some of the millions of disadvantaged children currently stuck in dysfunctional public schools. But for Democrats, the political argument is also compelling. If Democrats merely gainsay the voucher proposal President Bush will almost surely promote in 2004, they will appear (rightly) as educational obstructionists, and lose support among swing voters and low-income urban parents. But if they get behind the accountable vouchers idea, Democrats would not only enhance their appeal to these key constituencies. They would also be calling the president’s bluff. How can you demand high educational standards for public schools, they could say, but not for private schools that accept public money? Bush would be in a bind: overrule his own base, or lose the high ground on educational accountability. It’s a choice any liberal should enjoy watching him make.