In 1955, the libertarian economist Milton Friedman proposed what was, for its time, a radical idea: that schoolchildren be given government-funded vouchers to enable them to attend private schools. As ubiquitous as the notion of “school choice” has since become, Friedman’s suggestion didn’t immediately catch on, remaining mostly confined to academia for well over a decade. Then, in the 1970s, Lyndon Johnson-era liberals connected with President Nixon’s Office of Economic Opportunity suggested that generous vouchers be provided to low-income students, hoping to increase funds available for poor students and promote racial integration. But a coalition of teachers unions and school administrators strenuously objected, and the idea went nowhere. Subscribe Online & Save 33%

It wasn’t until Ronald Reagan’s election to the presidency in 1980 that the modern school voucher movement took shape. Reagan’s own relatively modest voucher proposals were repeatedly rebuffed by Congress. However, his ascent unleashed a torrent of money into conservative think tanks and advocacy groups promoting policies that would advance the movement’s agenda of weakening the government, and, by extension, the Democratic Party. Conservative activists like William J. Bennett, Jack Kemp, and Clint Bolick seized on vouchers as a particularly potent example, in part because they struck at the heart of the nation’s most deeply established governmental activitypublic schooling. If conservatives could show that private schools worked better than public ones, and that the introduction of competition improved entire school systems, that would advance their arguments for welfare rollbacks, Social Security privatization, and other initiatives to replace government programs with the free market.

Based on such thinking, the John M. Olin and the Lynde and Harry Bradley Foundations led the way in pouring millions of dollars into institutions and activities that promoted vouchers and school choice. By 1987, the notion of vouchers had become sufficiently commonplace that Bennett, who had become Reagan’s secretary of education, observed: “When I started talking about choice a couple of years ago, it was still regarded as somewhat heretical. Now it seems to be the conventional wisdom.” In 1990, the Wisconsin legislature launched the nation’s first publicly financed voucher initiative to include private schools in Milwaukee, backed by Tommy Thompson, the reform-minded Republican governor; Annette “Polly” Williams, a liberal African American state legislator; and the pugnacious Michael S. Joyce, the head of the Milwaukee-based Bradley Foundation. The voucher idea received a further infusion of legitimacy that same year from a hugely influential book called Politics, Markets, & America’s Schools, by the scholars John E. Chubb and Terry M. Moe. Although the book was funded by the Olin and Bradley Foundations, it was published by the liberal Brookings Institution, where Chubb was a senior fellow. This affiliation suggested, misleadingly, that their argument wasn’t rooted in right-wing ideology.

Throughout the 1990s and the early part of this decade, voucher advocates sustained the offensive, gaining increasing support from African Americans such as Colin Powell and the prominent civil rights activist and mayor of Atlanta, Andrew Young; and Democrats such as Robert Reich, who believed that a radical experiment like vouchers was worth trying after the failure of more traditional reforms to produce functional urban school systems. After a favorable state supreme court ruling in 1998, Milwaukee’s voucher experiment was expanded, from about fifteen hundred students attending less than two dozen secular schools to more than five thousand students spread among nearly a hundred mostly parochial schools; this school year, roughly twenty thousand Milwaukee students attend 122 voucher schools. In 1996, Cleveland launched a voucher program for several thousand students, which was approved by the U.S. Supreme Court in 2002. The Florida legislature enacted a school voucher plan in 1999, as did Colorado in 2003, and the U.S. Congress, for Washington, D.C., in 2004. And although the No Child Left Behind Act rankled many conservatives because it extended the federal government’s reach into a traditionally state and local realm, the Bush administration attempted to mollify the right by including provisions that allowed failing public schools to be reconstituted by private contractors. By casting liberal opponents of vouchers as defenders of a miserable status quo in America’s cities, conservatives were generally successful at portraying themselves as the genuine reformers fighting to liberate poor minority children trapped in lousy schools.

But in recent months, almost unnoticed by the mainstream media, the school voucher movement has abruptly stalled. Some stalwart advocates of vouchers have either repudiated the idea entirely or considerably tempered their enthusiasm for it. Exhibit A is “School Choice Isn’t Enough,” an article in the winter 2008 City Journal (the quarterly published by the conservative Manhattan Institute) written by the former voucher proponent Sol Stern. Acknowledging that voucher programs for poor children had “hit a wall,” Stern concluded: “Education reformers ought to resist unreflective support for elegant-sounding theories, derived from the study of economic activity, that don’t produce verifiable results in the classroom.” His conversion has triggered an intense debate in conservative circles. The center-right education scholar Chester E. Finn Jr., president of the Thomas B. Fordham Foundation and a longtime critic of public school bureaucracies and teachers unions, told the New York Sun that he was sympathetic to Stern’s argument. In his newly published memoirs, Finn also writes of his increasing skepticism that “the market’s invisible hand” produces improved performance on its own. Howard Fuller, an African American who was the superintendent of schools in Milwaukee when the voucher program was launched there, and who received substantial support from the Bradley Foundation and other conservative institutions over the years, has conceded, “It hasn’t worked like we thought it would in theory.”

From all appearances, then, the voucher movement may not long outlive its founder, Friedman, or its most vigorous advocate and funder, Michael Joyce, who both died in 2006. How did one of the conservative policy world’s most cherished causes crumble so quickly?

One simple reason why voucher supporters have become disillusioned is that the programs haven’t delivered on their promises. School choice advocates claimed that vouchers would have two major benefits: low-income kids rescued from dysfunctional public schools would do better in private schools; and public schools would improve, thanks to the injection of some healthy competition.

Let’s start with the contention that the academic performance of low-income children would improve after they moved to private institutions. For a long time, it was absurdly difficult to find out whether this was true in the one place where vouchers had been tried over an extended period: Milwaukee. After that city’s initial small-scale initiative produced ambiguous, but generally unimpressive, results (and a lot of fighting over that data), the Wisconsin legislature chose to omit testing requirements altogether when the program was significantly expanded in 1998. This February, however, a group of researchers led by professors Patrick J. Wolf and John F. Witte produced the first installment of a study intended to follow how comparable groups of students in the public and private voucher schools perform over time. At least at the outset, they found no statistically significant differences in the test scores between the public and private school fourth and eighth graders for the 2006-07 school year. For the private as well as the public school students, the scores generally hovered around the 33rd percentilein other words, a typically low performance for schools with high concentrations of poverty.

In Cleveland, a similar but now completed study that followed the same students over time showed dispiriting results from that city’s voucher program. Tracking the scores of students who began kindergarten in the 1997-98 school year through their sixth-grade year in 2003-04, Indiana University researchers found no significant differences in overall achievement, reading, or math scores between students who used vouchers and those who stayed in public schools, after taking into account socioeconomic differences.

What about the effect of vouchers on public schools that were forced to compete for students with private ones? Voucher supporters believed that public schools would improve for two reasons. First, school administrators, faced with diminishing funds for every child that used a voucher to transfer to a private school, would be impelled to do better. And second, because parents would be encouraged to shop for the best place for their children, they would become more involved in the school they chose and hold it to higher standards.

Neither of these pressures has had a discernible impact on public school performance. In Wisconsin, this was made starkly evident in last year’s results from the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), the federally sponsored gold standard of testing. Reading scores for black fourth- and eighth-grade students were the lowest of any state, and the reading achievement gap between black and white students remains the worst in the nation. Since about 70 percent of Wisconsin’s black students attend Milwaukee public schools, any competition-induced improvements evidently haven’t amounted to much. One study, by Harvard’s Caroline M. Hoxby, a voucher advocate, purported to find test score improvements in the Milwaukee public schools most affected by the risk of losing students to private schools; but the gains may have been caused simply by the lowest-performing students moving to private schools, as Hoxby herself concedes. In any case, the Manhattan Institute’s Stern points out that Hoxby’s analysis, published in 2001, is outdated compared to the more comprehensive and recent NAEP results, and calls the public school performance in Milwaukee after years of voucher competition “depressing.”

In the Cleveland public schools, fourth-grade math scores on the NAEP test improved significantly from 2003 to 2005, though comparable gains occurred in seven of ten other big cities without vouchers. Cleveland’s fourth-grade reading test improvements were more modest, and smaller than gains in Atlanta and New York Cityneither of which has a public voucher program.

Also disappointing to voucher advocates has been the discovery that the innovation of choice hasn’t caused parents to become noticeably more involved in public schools. One of the strategies that the Bradley Foundation initially used to lay the groundwork for vouchers in Milwaukee was to create a think tank called the Wisconsin Policy Research Institute, which churned out studies trashing public schools. Last October, however, WPRI produced a report on the Milwaukee voucher experience, titled “The Limits of Parent-Driven Reform,” that confessed: “The report you are reading did not yield the results we hoped to find. We had expected to find a wellspring of hope that increased parental involvement in the Milwaukee Public Schools (MPS) would be the key ingredient in improving student performance.” Instead, the institute found that only 10 percent of parents had been the kind of “active consumers” that would “exert market-based influence to the school system,” and concluded that focusing on parental choice and involvement “cannot be seen as a substitute for substantive reforms in the hierarchy of MPS and in the classrooms throughout Milwaukee.” WPRI employed questionable methodology to reach its conclusions, as it had often done in the past, but this time the results undercut an initiative the institute had championed for years.

Ultimately, the voucher experiments confirmed what their critics had asserted all along. The heart of the problem with our urban schools is neither the education bureaucracies nor teachers unions, as Chubb, Moe, and many other voucher advocates have contended, flawed though those institutions may be. Instead, as the sociologist James S. Coleman found in the 1960s, a student’s family’s income and the collective social and economic background of his classmates are by far the most important influences on his academic future. Not only do lower-income students tend to score relatively poorly, children of any background who attend high-poverty schools are far more likely to produce worse test results than they would in schools with primarily middle-class students. America’s urban school systems remain almost universally dysfunctional, primarily because the country as a whole is about as segregated by race and income as at any time since the civil rights revolution.

This means that in the existing voucher programs, which have been confined to city school districts, students have had only a limited choice between public schools in low-income neighborhoods and private institutionsmostly parochial schoolsthat serve almost identical populations. In 2005, a team of reporters from the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel visited all but a handful of the private choice schools, and found that “the voucher schools feel, and look, surprisingly like schools in the Milwaukee Public Schools district. Both … are struggling in the same battle to educate low-income, minority students.” The Journal Sentinel also reported that the absence of oversight from the much-derided government bureaucracy had led to a significant waste of public funds, and even outright fraud. At least ten of the 125 private schools in the voucher program “appeared to lack the ability, resources, knowledge, or will to offer children even a mediocre education.” Most of those schools were led by individuals who had negligible experience and had no resources other than state payments. (One notorious case was Alex’s Academics of Excellence, a school started by a convicted rapist that continued to enroll students for years after enduring two evictions, allegations of drug use by school staff on school grounds, and an investigation by the district attorney, before finally closing in 2004.) The Journal Sentinel also found that many parents left their children in bad schools long after it was clear that they were failing. Recently, national studies of NAEP tests have confirmed that private and charter schools on average perform little or no better than traditional public schools (and in some cases worse), after taking into account the socioeconomic background of the students.

Vouchers would hardly be the first conservative policy fixation to founder on the shoals of empirical evidence. Yet the conservative backers of, say, supply-side economics or health savings accounts haven’t traditionally allowed hard facts to deter them. Many of the erstwhile champions of school choice are having second thoughts not only because vouchers are a policy failure, but also because they didn’t materialize into the political game changer that right-wing activists were hoping for.

In 1997, the conservative writer Michael Gerson (who would go on to be George W. Bush’s chief speechwriter) took a tour of small-town Indiana when the state was considering a voucher program. He found that its predominantly conservative population prized its public schools (mostly because of their proud basketball tradition) and resented the suggestion that these institutions were failing their students. Over the years, various proposals for vouchers in Indiana have never progressed very far. “Conservative politicians running in this state quickly find that criticizing public educationor suggesting that some people might want to opt outis like spitting on the school colors,” Gerson wrote in U.S. News & World Report, noting that in 1997, support for voucher programs was higher in the liberal Northeast than the more conservative Midwest.

In 2000, both California and Michigan offered referendums on voucher programs for all children in the state. The initiatives were defeated by margins of forty-two and thirty-eight points, respectively. Voucher supporters like to blame the defeats on well-funded teachers unions, but the law professors James E. Ryan and Michael Heise found that voucher supporters had outspent the opposition in Michigan, and both sides had spent about the same amount of money in California. They concluded that the decisive resistance to vouchers had come from suburban voters who feared that the programs would take money away from local schools and worried about the arrival of lower-income and minority students in their children’s classrooms. And last year, in the conservative, predominantly white state of Utah, the Republican legislature put a November referendum for a voucher program on the state ballot, which CEO Patrick Byrne and his family supported with about $4 million. It lost by 62 percent to 38 percentthe eighth decisive loss for a statewide voucher ballot initiative. There have not been any victories.

Bill Burrow, the associate director of the Office on Competitiveness under the first President Bush, has noted that school choice is “popular in the national headquarters of the Republican Party but is unpopular among the Republican rank-and-file voters who have moved away from the inner city in part so that their children will not have to attend schools that are racially or socioeconomically integrated.” Indeed, the term “voucher” has become so politically unattractive that in his January State of the Union address this year, President George W. Bush concocted the euphemism “Pell Grants for Kids” to propose a federal initiative to support private religious schools that has no chance of passing Congress.

Finally, conservative activists are increasingly realizing that even if they can overcome political resistance to statewide voucher programs, they may be defeated in the end by the courts. In 2004, Colorado’s supreme court ruled that the state’s voucher law violated the state constitution’s requirement that local districts retain control over locally raised funds. In 2006, the Florida Supreme Court struck down its statewide voucher program on the grounds that it violated a section of the constitution requiring a free and “uniform” system of public schools. Many other state constitutions include so-called Blaine Amendments, which explicitly bar government aid to sectarian schools and institutionsgreatly limiting the jurisdictions in which voucher plans are legally viable.

As these realities have set in, the conservative movement’s formidable resources and energy have, to a large extent, shifted away from vouchers and toward the much less controversial idea of charter schools. (Because charters are sanctioned by state governments but allowed to operate autonomously from the public school hierarchy, they appeal to the right’s desire to sideline the bureaucracy and the teachers unions, while posing much less of a threat to the public schools than vouchers.) The right’s spending on educational issues is now led by the Walton Family Foundation, which devoted about 80 percent of its education spending toward activities related to charter schoolsan allocation of some $50 million a year. The Olin Foundation spent itself out of existence in 2005, but the Bradley Foundation remains active, with, for example, a $3 million grant in 2007 to the Charter School Growth Fund. For all the Sturm und Drang created by the right-wing marketing machine, the number of students who have used publicly financed vouchers to attend private schools over the past eighteen years amounts to no more than the population of a medium-size suburb, and only a small fraction of those now enrolled in charter schools.

The conservative infatuation with vouchers did contribute to one genuine accomplishment. The past thirty years have been a period of enormous innovation in American education. In addition to charter schools, all kinds of strategies have taken root: public school choice, new approaches to standards and accountability, magnet schools, and open enrollment plans that allow low-income city kids to attend suburban public schools and participate in various curriculum-based experiments. To the extent that the threat of vouchers represented a “nuclear option” that educators would do anything to avoid, the voucher movement helped to prompt broader but less drastic reforms that offer parents and students greater educational choices.

Along the way, some success stories have emerged, along with the many disappointments. But among the most promising approaches, as my Century Foundation colleague Richard Kahlenberg recently wrote in Democracy, are strategies that combine school choice initiatives like magnet and charter schools with policies to integrate poor and middle-class students. Wake County, North Carolina, for instance, introduced a policy in 2000 mandating that no school could have more than 40 percent of its students eligible for free or reduced-price lunches. Because this program makes use of choice and incentives like magnet schools to integrate poor and middle-class kids, it avoids the political hazards of compulsory busing. So far, the results have been impressive. In 2006, 60.5 percent of low-income students in Wake County passed the high school End of Course exams, compared to 43 percent of low-income students in a nearby county of a comparable size.

Of course, the inherent limit to this idea is that many urban school districts are so uniformly poor that there are few, if any, middle-class communities with schools that low-income kids can attend. One way to get around this problem would be to amend the No Child Left Behind Act to give students in failing schools the ability to attend a school outside their own district. If voucher proponents are truly motivated by a desire to help disadvantaged kids, and not merely an ideological urge to weaken public institutions, they have a chance to show it by putting their prodigious energies and money behind choice programs like these that actually work.

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Greg Anrig

Greg Anrig is the vice president for policy and programs at the Century Foundation.