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Week of: March 25, 2001

Unions Can't Stop Advent of Vouchers

by F.R. Duplantier

Educational reform is taking place in spite of the opposition of teachers unions

"Major changes in the structure of American education cannot come about easily or quickly," cautions Terry Moe of the Hoover Institution. "Choice and competition are inherently threatening to the established interests that run the current system," he explains, "particularly the teachers union -- affecting, possibly in big ways, the number of people the system employs, the amount of money it controls, the prospects for collective bargaining, and much more. When it comes to vouchers, especially," Moe observes, "these groups have incentives to resist with all the power they can muster. And the teachers unions," he adds, "are perhaps the most powerful interest group in all of American politics."

In a chapter he contributed to a new book called An Education Agenda: Let Parents Choose Their Children's Schools, published by the National Center for Policy Analysis and Children First America, Moe points out that the voucher movement was initially "a conservative phenomenon, driven by the ideals of people who firmly believed in the power of markets to improve the schools." More recently, he says, "efforts have focused on providing vouchers to poor and minority families in the inner cities: families that are concentrated in low-performing schools . . . and value vouchers as a means of escape. The new arguments for vouchers," Moe remarks, "have less to do with free markets than with social equity. And they have less to do with theory," he adds, "than with the common-sense notions that disadvantaged kids should be given immediate opportunities to get out of bad schools. . . ."

Moe notes the "extremely awkward position" in which liberals now find themselves as they are forced to betray their self-proclaimed status as champions of the downtrodden and oppressed. Instead, they are "fighting against poor families, who are trying to escape conditions that liberals agree are deplorable. In doing so," he notes, "liberals have essentially pushed the urban poor into an educational alliance with conservatives." Moe reports that this alliance "has been responsible for creating a vast system of privately funded voucher programs -- programs that opponents are powerless to block -- and have put vouchers in the hands of more than 60,000 disadvantaged children. Slowly but increasingly," he comments, "vouchers are becoming part of the everyday lives of poor families and the everyday experiences of urban communities."

Moe reports that "certain high-profile liberals have begun to peel off and announce their support for targeted voucher plans," basing their support on "liberal principles and concerns. They do not rave about markets," he notes. "They see vouchers as experimental but sensible means of providing muchneeded assistance to disadvantaged kids, and of trying to shake and improve a status quo that in many urban areas is inequitable and resistant to change."

Moe emphasizes that "vouchers could very easily be a Democratic issue -- but Democratic politicians have been unable to treat it as one. Were it not for the unions," says Moe, "many Democrats, especially those representing inner-city areas, would simply line up with their constituents. Eventually," he predicts, "this is what will happen. The shift to vouchers by prominent liberals will pave the way. . . ."


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