Trip Gabriel - In the 11th-hour compromise to avoid a government shutdown last week, one concession that President Obama made to Republicans drew scant attention: he agreed to finance vouchers for Washington students to attend private schools.
The voucher program, whose main beneficiaries are church-affiliated schools, is close to the heart of the House speaker, John A. Boehner, a product of parochial schools, who had repeatedly choked up defending it on the House floor last month.
The White House at first opposed the Opportunity Scholarship Program, saying it did not raise student achievement. But in the end it was an easy place to compromise, administration aides said, in order to save bigger, more prominent education initiatives favored by Democrats from the $38 billion in cuts.
Mr. Boehner’s beloved program is the latest example of how conservative Republicans across the country are advancing school vouchers — including offering them for the first time to middle-class families — and reviving a cause that until recently seemed moribund.
“Life has been breathed into the voucher movement,” said Grover J. Whitehurst, director of education policy at the Brookings Institution. “I think they are part of what will be a more powerful and focused drive toward choice.”
Voucher advocates have long argued that if a student can use public money to attend any school, even a private one, schools will compete and improve. Some black leaders see vouchers as a way for poor students to escape failing urban schools.
“When I walk into a Safeway and talk to a mother who had a child who was already part of the voucher program and had another one she wanted to sign up, how could I deny her the opportunity?” said Kwame R. Brown, the Democratic chairman of the Council of the District of Columbia, who supports the city’s voucher program.
But vouchers were never widely adopted. Voters in four states defeated voucher referendums through 2007, and state courts narrowed or ended some programs.
Much of the enthusiasm for school choice has been absorbed by charter schools, which are secular and accountable under state standards like other public schools. Today, when 1.6 million students attend charter schools, the pro-voucher Foundation for Educational Choice says that only about 185,000 are in voucher or voucherlike programs.
The same gale-force winds battering teacher tenure and collective-bargaining rights, however, have led to a voucher revival.
“Where Republicans have taken over both the governor’s office and state legislatures, they’re pushing very hard on ideas that are grounded much more in ideology than on evidence they’ll have positive outcomes,” said Greg Anrig, vice president for policy at the liberal Century Foundation.
Gov. John Kasich of Ohio wants to quadruple a state voucher program capped at 14,000 students in failing schools. In Indiana, a bill that is likely to pass the legislature soon would offer vouchers to families with incomes up to $61,000. “I think it’s going to strengthen public schools through competition,” said Dennis Kruse, the Republican chairman of the State Senate education panel. “The schools will have to shape up if they want to keep the kids they have.”
Vi Simpson, the Democratic minority leader in the Senate in Indiana, said the vouchers would divert $92 million from public schools when they are already facing steep declines in state and federal aid. “Either this hasn’t been very well thought out,” she said, “or it’s been very well thought out and it is intended to help public schools fail.”
Gov. Scott Walker of Wisconsin, who overcame a siege of the State Capitol to enact a law narrowing collective bargaining for public employees, mainly teachers, wants to expand Milwaukee’s voucher program, the nation’s oldest with 20,000 students. His plan would let any student, not just the poor, receive a voucher. Supporters say universal vouchers will make the city more attractive to the middle class.
But critics say that even after 21 years of vouchers, students receiving them perform no better than those in public schools on state tests of math and reading. Mr. Walker’s proposal “takes a program that’s supposed to be for low-income and working-class people and turns it into a subsidy for rich people,” said Howard L. Fuller, who was superintendent in the program’s early years.
“I will become an opponent of a program that I’ve fought 20 years of my life for,” he added. “I’ve been called every name under the sun for being a black person who would support, quote, the right-wing agenda.”
Dr. Fuller recalled debating an Illinois state senator opposed to vouchers in 1998, Barack Obama.
Democrats in Congress in 2009 closed Washington’s voucher program to new students, and as recently as last month the White House opposed reopening it on the ground that it did not lift student achievement. That was the finding of the United States Department of Education last year. But the report showed that Washington voucher students had a 12 percent higher graduation rate.
Mr. Boehner introduced legislation last month to reopen the program, providing $8,000 to $12,000 per year for low-income students, a total of $20 million annually for five years. After impassioned debate, the House bill passed March 29 on nearly a party-line vote. Its prospects in the Senate were considered poor.
Then came the budget negotiations between the White House and Congressional Republicans. For the administration, accepting Mr. Boehner’s voucher program was a small compromise compared with education priorities like maintaining financing for Head Start and Race to the Top.
One person excited by that decision was Lydell Mann, a single father with two children in the voucher program. He chose the Nannie Helen Burroughs School, owned by a Baptist denomination, for his children because the classes are smaller and the students more respectful, compared with what he observed when his daughter attended public school.
“Taking Ariona to school every day, noticing the language being used by the youth, noticing the trouble that would be started before and after school, I felt that environment wasn’t the greatest,” Mr. Mann said.
He was “ecstatic” that more families would have a chance to receive vouchers.