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Hollow victory for voucher foes

Published January 14, 2006

In the wake of the recent Florida Supreme Court decision overturning the state's flagship private school voucher program there were the usual cheers from opponents and jeers from voucher supporters. It is a predictable scene routinely played out in Florida and other states where school vouchers are a hot-button issue. Yet for supporters of public education, the court's ruling is a hollow victory, not a cause for celebration.

That is because the Opportunity Scholarship Program and Florida's two other private-school choice programs are proving very popular with parents. Florida is not an anomaly; various choice schemes offered in other states and cities are popular as well. In fact, whenever parents are given greater educational choice through private or publicly funded voucher programs or through public charter schools they've responded enthusiastically. This vigorous demand for choice among parents should be a wake-up call for supporters of public schools.

This is not to say that vouchers are a panacea. On the contrary, it's hard to see vouchers as a widespread solution to educational problems in Florida or elsewhere. For instance, a lack of transparency and public accountability with public dollars has created problems in Florida and in other states and the modest gains in student learning so far produced by these initiatives show they are no silver bullet.

Nonetheless, an industry that finds itself relying on the courts rather than consumer preference and loyalty to maintain its market dominance lives on a razor's edge. Unfortunately, as last week's court decision illustrates, this is exactly where the public schools often are right now. However, for the public schools to endure as a durable and high-quality institution parents must be choosing them as a matter of preference, not coercion. The demand for choice and the growing need for voucher opponents to fight in the courts rather than at the ballot box or in state legislatures shows how this is often not the case.

During the last century many industries, from the old trusts to modern industries like telecommunications and airlines, experienced fights between producers and consumers. Producers of goods and services naturally seek to protect their market share any way they can while new providers fight to enter the marketplace.

As one of the last quasi-monopolies, public schools are now facing these same pressures. Consequently, producer interests such as interest groups representing teachers, principals and school superintendents fight against vouchers while advocacy groups representing parents fight for them. It is an old story, just relatively new in education in its intensity and its current form - school vouchers.

The best way for the public schools to resist vouchers is not in the courts but instead by adopting their best aspects while addressing the problems. For starters, more choice for parents among public schools offers the promise of greater educational customization for students and healthy competitive pressures along with transparency and public accountability.

Unfortunately, most voucher opponents are also opposed to real parental choice among public schools and public charter schools and to many other reforms that threaten to displace the established producer interests in public education. Over time that is a self-defeating strategy, because as the voucher debate plays out a lot of students in Florida remain poorly served.

For instance, according to data from Standard and Poor's, by the time they reached 10th grade barely three in 10 Florida students are reading at grade level and only six in 10 are doing math at grade level. And enormous racial disparities divide Florida schoolchildren. While, statewide, six in 10 white students are reading at grade level, only one in three black students are. This is why cheering the court decision is almost obscene. Vouchers are not going to solve those problems statewide but neither will their defeat in court.

Meanwhile, because of these issues parental demand for school improvement and more choices in public education is growing, not dissipating. Rather than dancing on the grave of the voucher program, public school supporters in Florida should see it as a warning sign and get serious about making the state's public schools a first choice for parents, not a forced one.

Andrew J. Rotherham is co-director of Education Sector, a national nonpartisan education think tank. He is also a senior fellow at the Progressive Policy Institute and writes the blog

[Last modified January 14, 2006, 01:38:14]

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