WASHINGTON – After 11 Republicans joined with all but three Democrats in the Senate to kill a federal school choice pilot program, conservatives in Washington and around the country are grumbling that the education package that Congress is likely to pass is more of the status quo, with very few of President Bush's promised reforms.
"It's a very, very, very, very sad day," said Kevin Cherry, a policy analyst for the Empower America political advocacy group in Washington. "It's a tragedy for the kids trapped in these horrible schools."
Several House and Senate Democrats and their allies in the teachers' unions argue that vouchers would siphon much-needed funds from public schools and are a distraction to efforts to improve schools. They were able to fight off several efforts to include school choice provisions that would have provided money to low-income families to apply for tuition for their kids. The last effort was an amendment offered by Sen. Judd Gregg, R-N.H., to provide $50 million for a pilot choice program.
"[Bush] lost a lot," said Cherry, who blamed the divided Senate and American Federation of Teachers for putting the kibosh on vouchers as well as the president's proposals for accountability and broader spending flexibility for the states. Referencing Bush's "leave no child behind" mantra, Cherry said, "it was really Bush's plan that was left behind."
School choice was among the most controversial of Bush's education initiatives. While vouchers have been gaining traction in some states, they still remain a political hot potato at the national level.
"The Congress is almost evenly divided and the Bush administration knows it has to make compromises to get his package through," noted Terry Moe, a senior fellow at Stanford University's Hoover Institute and the author of Schools, Vouchers, and the American Public. "I think a number of Republicans would be happy to vote for a voucher proposal, but they saw it as a threat to the larger education package, which they want to pass.
"The only problem is from the public relations standpoint, because, on the surface, opponents say people don't want vouchers," said Moe. "If an issue has a strong opponent, all that opponent has to do is create doubt. The unions can always create doubt."
Despite this setback for voucher advocates, and despite some of the rhetoric heard on the Hill from voucher opponents, Moe said school choice enjoys significant public support, especially in minority communities.
A 2000 poll of New York City residents conducted by Hunter College found that 87 percent of Hispanics approved of vouchers, while 83 percent of blacks and 86 percent of Asians also approved. And, according to a 1999 Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies poll, 60 percent of blacks liked the idea vouchers; and of all those surveyed, 2/3 of baby boomers approved, as did 70 percent of respondents under the age of 35.
"The voucher movement is everywhere, pushing for change everywhere and the key to its success is that while teachers' unions are powerful and can often block change, they cannot block it everywhere," Moe declared.
To date, 37 states and the District of Columbia have initiated charter school or voucher programs, including nationally spotlighted programs in Cleveland, Milwaukee and the state of Florida.
Voucher opponents have some recent history on their side, however. They point to two big, state-wide initiative defeats in California and Michigan last November to bolster their claim that there is little public support for vouchers.
But Moe said that it's easy for the unions to bring out the troops against initiatives, but not so easy in other arenas.
"I think the initiative defeats say very little about the people, they simply testified to the power of the teachers' union," he said. "The message should be, 'don't pursue initiative campaigns because you'll lose.'"
Meanwhile, Sen. Gregg appeared unwilling Wednesday to give up the fight. Though the Senate accepted a later amendment he co-sponsored that will give $525 million in competitive grants to schools to expand public charter school programs, he still believes the only way to offer true choice is through private school vouchers.
"I was disappointed that the amendment did not pass," he said. "We must return control to parents by ensuring that they have the opportunity to select the school which best meets the needs of their child. The Senate should send a clear message that consistent failure will not be tolerated and that all children, regardless of income or circumstance should be afforded the right to an excellent education."
According to a study by the conservative Heritage Foundation last year, 40 percent of House members and 49 percent of senators send their children to private schools. Meanwhile, 85 percent of American school children are in public schools.