- The Washington Times - Sunday, September 9, 2001

By Terry M. Moe
Brookings Institution, $29.95, 452 pages

Education is perhaps America's most important political issue. Explains Terry Moe of the Hoover Institution: "As the new century unfolds, the most controversial issue in American education is the issue of school vouchers."
Mr. Moe has previously written on behalf of school choice, but "Schools, Vouchers, and the American Public" does not not attempt to sell vouchers. Rather, the author assesses Americans' attitudes towards vouchers. The result is a fascinating dissection of opinions that are simultaneously inchoate, complicated, and changing.
The political divide is broad and uncompromising. Voucher critics are led by public school administrators, teachers' unions, and liberal organizations. In contrast, writes Mr. Moe, the voucher movement runs from traditional conservatives to inner-city poor, though it "is far less organized than the defenders of the system, has fewer resources, and has no institutional base." Nevertheless, the writer observes, "when the conditions are right, it is capable of winning."
The genesis of vouchers is commonly attributed to Milton Friedman back in 1955. After more than three decades competition and choice became an accepted alternative to the public school monopoly. But will vouchers actually triumph? Writes Mr. Moe:
"With the dawning of the twenty-first century, the voucher movement could be on the verge of transforming American education. It has already achieved important victories, and the trajectory suggests that there will be more to come in the near future. But success is hardly assured. The opposition is still far more powerful overall, is dedicated to stopping vouchers in their tracks, and has been marshaling resources for a war it fully intends to win — and must, if it is to survive."
Still, vouchers have a chance to win, because the public schools are not working. Although the public is not as dissatisfied as has often been suggested, it is not terribly happy, reports Mr. Moe. This "is hardly good news" for the schools, he writes, since it "suggests a substantial block of people who range from underwhelmed to totally dissatisfied." Even more important, the public has a much more positive view of private education. "They think they have better options, and these options are precisely the ones the voucher movement makes available to them."
Mr. Moe is at his investigative best in exploring what goes into the public's assessment of their schools. He finds that most of the factors, such as residential mobility, "tend to promote a very supportive environment even if the schools are not performing well." This, in turn, helps to entrench the status quo.
However, Mr. Moe finds, the appeal of private schools remains strong — half of public school parents express an interest in private education. And he rebuts critics who argue "that parents cannot be counted upon to make educationally astute judgments in choosing schools for their children, and that an expansion of choice is unlikely to get kids into better schools." He finds "that performance is far-and-away the most powerful explanatory factor" in parents' decision to go private.
Vouchers remain controversial, however. Assessing public opinion is difficult. Mr. Moe's new survey found roughly two-to-one support for vouchers. Moreover, the margin grows during the course of the survey. Nevertheless, he admits, "there can be no pretense that [these numbers] are measuring the 'true' level of public support anyway, for there isn't one to measure."
Another controversial issue is what regulation would beappropriate for vouchers. In general, Americans support modest controls on private schools but fewer restrictions on parents. Writes Mr. Moe, "Americans are quite enthusiastic about regulations that promote equity." But a large majority support a universal approach rather than one targeted only to low-income families.
All of this leaves the question: Now what? A majority of people support vouchers in the abstract, but establishment elites are powerful enough to block most voucher initiatives.
The issue is not static, however. Although the leadership of the voucher movement tends to be Republican, among the presently uninformed public, Democrats — usually of lower education and income — are more likely to support vouchers. Says Mr. Moe: "Absent the framing effects of national politics, the voucher issue very easily translates into a liberal or Democratic issue."
To tap into these sentiments he believes that voucher activists, who tend to oppose regulation, "need to endorse policy proposals that appeal to centrist constituencies." More specifically: "They need to get away from free markets, and embrace a regulated approach to vouchers that recognizes the public's concern for accountability, fairness, and equity. And as they do these things, they need to resist the impulse to attack the public school system."
By exploring the public sentiments behind one of today's most volatile political issues, Terry Moe has written an invaluable book. His pragmatism warrants caution — one of the most important benefits of vouchers is that they would help privatize the inherently flawed monopoly public school system. But Mr. Moe has provided voucher proponents with the information necessary to plot their next campaign.

Doug Bandow, a senior fellow at the Cato Institute, is a nationally syndicated columnist.

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