How the Bush and Reagan Administrations Subverted the ‘Choice in Education’ Movement

In Chicago, councils dominated by parents have been elected to govern each public school. In Minnesota, parents can send their children to any public school in the district. In Charlottesville, President Bush met with the nation’s governors to discuss education, and the most-talked about issue was “choice.” Do these developments signify an America about to solve its long standing education problem?

Sadly, they do not. The Bush administration has doomed true educational reform for the foreseeable future. It has done so in a deceptively simple way: it changed the subject. That is bad enough. What is worse is that people are falling for it and some private schools are pursuing a foolish strategy, thinking that they are shrewdly preserving their options when in fact they are allowing themselves to be silenced.

For the past several years the educational-reform movement showed signs of momentum; “choice in education” was being talked about. This movement, uniting advocates of parochial schools, secular private schools, and home-schooling, sensibly saw the key to educational reform in parental freedom of choice. Such freedom would come as tuition tax credits or vouchers, but regardless of the method, the point was to liberate parents from double-billing for their children’s edu cation. The movement participants understood that as long as parents had to pay school taxes, a relative few would have the resources to take advantage of alternative education, no matter how superior it might be to the “public” schools.

No progress on this front came during the eight years of the Reagan ad ministration, despite talk supporting freedom of choice. The sole glimmer was an abortive proposal from Education Secretary William Bennett to pro vide vouchers to poor families. Otherwise, it was a bad lime for the choice advocates. Recall that candidate Reagan promised to abolish the Department of Education, set up in the Carter administration as a payoff to the Nation al Education Association, the teachers’ union, for its endorsement during the primaries. Reagan not only kept the department, he also appointed an edu cation establishmentarian, Terrel Bell, as secretary. The department and its budget grew.

Reagan’s second secretary of education was Bennett (now drug czar), who, while talking about choice, proposed a national curriculum, an annual national report card on school performance, and national teacher certification. The department continued to grow.

Then came President George Bush. Although the Republican Party plat form repeated the GOP commitment to choice through vouchers or tax credits, and Bush expressed no disagreement during the campaign, The Washington Post, before he took office, observed: “The Reagan administration came into office talking a lot about ‘parental choice’ in education; what the phrase meant was tuition tax credits, vouchers, or, toward the end, mag net schools. ow President-elect Bush and others who talk about ‘choice,’ as they strive not to fumble the ball of a still-accelerating reform movement, mean something different and less ideologically blood-soaked. The kind of ‘choice’ gaining attention . . . is a more limited type of plan.”

Limited indeed. Bush tipped his hand between election day and inauguration day at a White House work shop on education. There, through all the talk about choice, “both the President and the President-elect avoided any mention of extending choice to private schools,” Education Week reported. As one observer put it, Bush’s “discreet silence spoke volumes.” What he did say at the workshop was this: “I intend to provide every feasible assistance—financial and otherwise—to states and districts interested in further experiments with choice plans or other valuable reforms.” Most of the people there-education bureaucrats—were delighted. “Choice is powerful medicine,” said Charles Glenn, director of the Bureau of Equal Educational Opportunity in Massachusetts. “It has to be prescribed with care.” Mr. Bush agreed: “Working educators’ concerns about the consequence of choice must be heard, acknowledged, and met.”

In case anyone missed the point, Bush, on taking office, made his agenda clear. Two months after inauguration, he formally abandoned real choice in education and endorsed a plan for ersatz choice, that is, “choice” within the government school system. As he put it, “I think everybody should support the public school system.” And what about parents who dislike the: quality of government schools? The “education president” told a group of students that “If . . . your parents want to shell out in addition to the tax money, tuition money, that’s their right, and that should be respected. But I don’t think they should get a break for that.” 

A break? What happened to the Republican view that the money be longs to the parents? The President did not address that issue. 

This crushing blow to the choice movement delighted the education establishment. “That’s outstanding,” said Frances Haywood, vice president of the Los Angeles teachers’ union. “It’s a great departure from the stance of the Republican Party.” The spokes man for the Los Angeles Archdiocese was understandably crestfallen: I’m disappointed. This President has called himself the education President, and he’s ignoring a sizeable segment of the American population in not recognizing the needs of parochial school students.” 

Today “choice” means choice among government schools. Some times it means choice within district lines; sometimes, as in Minnesota, across district lines. Sometimes the money follows the students, so that bad schools lose appropriations and good ones gain them. But it no longer means the freedom to choose private schools. The federal education bureaucracy has wasted no time in cranking out the propaganda about choice—now rede fined. Education Secretary Lauro F. Cavazos (who took office in the latter days of the Reagan administration) was sent hither and yon to drum up sup port. “I am calling for radical reform of elementary and secondary education. The system must be rebuilt from the ground up,” Cavazos said. “The concept of choice returns the crucial element of parental and student involvement,” he said on another occasion. “[Choice] empowers parents by bringing them into the decision-making process. It encourages teachers and principals to become entrepreneurs.” 

Cavazos quickly put together a program. He announced four regional “strategy meetings” with department officials, governors, legislators, state education officials, principals, teachers, and parents. He set up a task force to “promote, encourage, and evaluate choice programs” and report to him about their progress. He appointed a Special Advisor on Choice Programs to work on “further initiatives.” And he directed his Office of Educational Research and Improvement “to identify choice as a major priority of grants to be awarded this year under the Secretary’s Fund for Innovation in Education.” It doesn’t take Joan Quigley to predict a deluge of grant applications on the subject of choice.

Cavazos is an unlikely promoter of even this amount of choice in education. As a member of the education establishment, said a source in the department, Cavazos had almost no interest in choice, until Bush came up with his policy. Then Cavazos became a convert. He couldn’t have kept his job otherwise.

Why did Bush come up with this policy? The only reason he has given is budgetary. With deficits running high, the government can’t afford to forego revenue. But this is peculiar. Bush and Cavazos border on alarmist when they talk about the bad state of education and its effect on America’s place in the world. If things are this bad, one would expect them to see the value in cutting government spending in order to allow parents to buy private education, which in turn would set off an explosion of innovation in its provision. That they don’t do this shows they have misdiagnosed the problem.

Removal of vouchers and tax credits from the agenda is also related to their association with religious schooling. If parents are allowed to spend their own money, which otherwise would have gone to the government, on religious schools-so goes the dubious doctrine—this violates the separation of church and state. In Wisconsin a choice plan that does include private schools passed the legislature only when religious schools were excluded.

The response from many private educators to the abandonment of real choice is both opportunistic and likely self-defeating. Many of them are laying low: having accepted that vouchers and tax credits are off the agenda, they nonetheless believe that the promotion of “choice” will someday help them. Joyce McCray, executive director of the Council for American Private Education (CAPE), which represents all kinds of private and parochial schools, says that when the idea of choice is widely accepted, broadening it to include private schools will be feasible. But today, McCray acknowledges, there is no role for private schools in the Bush administration’s plans. CAPE will attend Cavazos’s regional meetings, but will do little more than talk up private school success stories.

The strategy of keeping a low profile and hoping that someday private schools will be back in the picture could easily backfire. When things are no better after several years of ersatz “choice,” a harsh reaction could occur. The government teachers and administrators don’t much like the idea now—after all, do parents know more about choosing a school for their kids than the experts? They complain that choice is incompatible with the intend ed egalitarianism of “public” schooling. So they will surely look for any reason to scrap the idea at the earliest possible date. That will be no time for the private schools to propose broaden ing choice to include them. If, on the other hand, the public school officials can point to some improvement in their statistics, they will herald the system’s ability to innovate and warn against tampering with success. Either way, the private schools—and more important, the children—will lose.

Not everyone involved with private schools is following CAPE’s strategy. Barbara Keebler, public relations director of the National Catholic Education Association, which represents 200,000 Catholic educators, finds the Bush pol icy “very disconcerting.” NCEA met with Bush in June and asked that he declare his support for full choice, but so far that has not happened. Keebler said NCEA will now work in the states, but a strategy has not yet been developed.

Choice, as it is now conceived, is of course a defective substitute for the real thing. As long as parents are financial captives of the government schools they are without essential control over their children’s education. Control comes from the ability to stop financing a school. None of the cur rent plans allows this. In Minnesota, parents can send their children to any government school in any district. But they can’t stop their money from going to some government school. In Chicago, six parents are elected to each school’s governing council. But no parent can pull his money out.

The promises made about Bush-style choice ring hollow. Parents and children need consumer sovereignty the freedom of the marketplace—not Bush’s Orwellian-style choice. Whether sovereignty is achieved through tax credits or vouchers is less important than other considerations—for in stance, that the government not impose a curriculum on private schools or certification requirements on private teachers. To make the reform complete, compulsory-education laws-a form of conscription for children—should be abolished. This is merely as recognition that there are countless always to get an education. 

These reforms would also dispose of the passionate debate over whether values and education should be taught in the schools. Parents would be free to pick the school that reflects their own ethical and religious beliefs. Since no tax money would be involved, no one, whether a religionist or secular humanist, could claim that values were being imposed on anyone’s children. 

Education is in worse shape than the Bush administration and education establishment believe. It is hard to hold out hope for government schools that must use metal detectors to find guns and that tum out more than a few students who think the Constitution contains the words “from each according to his ability, to each according to his need.” Can there be a greater indictment of the system? 

The Bush administration’s commitment to government schooling and its sabotage of choice cannot be explained by a desire to educate students: too many decades of failure have gone by to think that government can do that. It is better explained by a desire to crank out more efficiently good, homogeneous, servile taxpaying citizens who won’t rock the boat. The choice-in education movement will have to rise again without any help from Washington.