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In the latest installment of our VRWC watch (aka our April issue), Greg Anrig reports the surprising news that after decades of supporting school vouchers, movement conservatives are starting to lose the faith. Part of the reason is a recent batch of evidence suggesting pretty strongly that vouchers don’t improve educational outcomes, but that’s not the whole story. After all, as Greg points out, empirical evidence compiled by social scientists doesn’t usually slow conservatives down much. There must be more to it:

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 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.

….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.

In the 1980s vouchers became a major culture war issue, and it turns out that what the culture war giveth, the culture war taketh away. If you’re going to make vouchers available to white kids who want to attend private schools, you also have to make them available to urban black kids who want to attend white suburban schools. And guess what? Conservative suburban parents aren’t too happy about that prospect. Better not to have vouchers at all than to have vouchers that might bring inner city children into the leafy green burbs.