Vouchers: constitutional and inevitable

The Supreme Court has ruled that vouchers are constitutional. But what happens now? Are vouchers destined to transform American education? Or are they doomed to a future of political defeat and irrelevance?

The court's decision will surely bring vouchers greater legitimacy and attention. But the brute fact is that politics is a game of power, and the basic power alignment is the same as before. The teachers' unions are by far the most powerful force in education politics. They are absolutely opposed to vouchers, and on this issue – which threatens their fundamental interests in jobs and resources – they have almost all Democrats in their hip pockets. As we look to the future, then, we learn little by knowing that vouchers are constitutional. The key question is: Can vouchers ever succeed in the face of such powerful opposition?

The answer has its roots in the inner city – where schools are often abysmally bad, and where disadvantaged children are systematically denied the education they need to have productive lives. This is the great tragedy of American education, and everyone agrees major reforms are called for.

The unions and their allies offer the usual array of don't-rock-the-boat reforms – more money, more training, smaller classes – and insist that disadvantaged kids stay in their bad public schools while the reforms work their wonders. But research suggests that such reforms will never have much impact. And even if they do, it will take many years for their effects to be felt. Meantime, whole generations of kids are being lost.

This is an outrage, and many families are reacting against it. They want new opportunities for their children – now – and vouchers give them that, empowering them to make educational choices that better-off people simply take for granted. There is, moreover, a profound side benefit: When families choose their own schools – and abandon bad ones – all schools know that they need to perform if they want to attract students and resources. And this gives schools new and powerful incentives to improve.

It is little wonder, then, that disadvantaged parents are the strongest supporters of vouchers in the nation, and that the country's first voucher programs – in Milwaukee, Cleveland, and Florida – are designed to provide new choices for the poor. It is the plight of inner-city children, and the utter failure of the existing system to serve them, that is driving the politics of vouchers.

The other side of the coin is that the teachers' unions can only defeat vouchers by fighting against the poor, and by getting their key allies – the Democrats and the civil rights groups – to do the same. So far the alliance has held. The Democrats are scared to death of the teachers' unions, and they kowtow to them on vouchers. The civil rights groups are led by an older generation that has long associated choice with segregation and discrimination – and opposed it.

Yet this alliance is inherently flawed, and it won't last. The teachers' unions are representing their own constituents – teachers – by opposing vouchers. But both the civil rights groups and the Democrats have the poor as prime constituents, and on the voucher issue – unlike any other area of public policy – they are refusing to represent their own people and give them what they want. This will change.

The civil rights groups already face internal dissension over vouchers, as well as competitors – notably, the Black Alliance for Educational Options – willing to represent their people. If they don't switch sides in the near future, they will do so eventually as the older generation gives way to a younger one that is much more favorable toward choice.

The Democrats, meantime, are already seeing defections to vouchers among the liberal intelligentsia – the Washington Post and The New Republic, to name but a few. And once the civil rights groups begin to move, many other Democrats will find it politically sensible to move as well, despite the unions' clout. Eventually, the teachers' unions will be isolated in their opposition – powerful, but not powerful enough to stop vouchers from taking root.

This process will take many years to work itself out, but it will gradually transform American education. The result will not be a full-blown voucher system. It will simply be an evolutionary – and better – version of what we have today: a system that retains a strong role for government, but that uses choice and competition to empower the powerless, to breathe new life into moribund schools, and to bring quality education to everyone regardless of status or class.

• Terry M. Moe is a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution and a professor of political science at Stanford University.

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