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Voucher Opponents Losing PR Battle

In D.C. and elsewhere, opponents of school choice can't argue with success.

by
Greg Forster

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August 4, 2009 - 12:00 am
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Everything you know about the politics of vouchers is wrong -– or soon will be. Recent events in Washington are confirming, more clearly than ever before, that a radical change is taking place in the landscape. The change isn’t confined to D.C., as you can find out by talking to any of the people who have been winning victories for school choice in places like Indiana, Arizona, and Georgia. (Or by reading their blogs.) But the ongoing battle over the D.C. voucher program provides the most dramatic demonstration that it is happening.

Five years ago — which, politically speaking, is approximately equal to when dinosaurs roamed the earth — opposition to vouchers relied almost entirely on the promulgation of popular myths. That was the way the teachers’ unions had done their dirty work for decades. They parroted lines like “vouchers drain money from public schools” and worked hard to exploit the public’s natural affection for teachers to the benefit of the educational labor unions.

As long as they could get enough people to believe these myths, there was no need for the unions to resort to anything worse. Politicians who didn’t want to support vouchers could just recite the myths and then openly vote against them.

But the lies aren’t getting the job done anymore. Partly that’s because a steady stream of top-quality empirical research has resoundingly demonstrated that the myths are false. And it’s partly because of the life experience of thousands of families whose kids don’t get the education they should — especially among the most disadvantaged members of society, who are feeling the worst effects of the school system’s comprehensive failure. After forty years of dramatic increases in school spending with no improvement to show for it, angry parents have stopped buying the line that money is the problem.

How do I know that the union myths aren’t working anymore? By the best possible evidence: the politicians are giving up on them. Politicians never give up on a myth as long as it still works.

Look no further than the headlines in D.C. The latest news is that a majority of the members of the D.C. Council have written a letter to Congress imploring it not to kill the D.C. voucher program. Opponents had desperately seized on the idea that a congressionally sponsored voucher program in D.C. was somehow offensive to “local control” and had tried to shift the fight from Congress to the D.C. Council.

No doubt the rich, white liberals trying to kill the program expected that the heavily Democratic, heavily liberal, heavily black, and disproportionately low-income population of the district would make a D.C. Council fight a cakewalk for them. But the angry parents of D.C., sick of seeing their children’s futures destroyed for the sake of union politics, refused to kiss their shoes.

That’s one part of the big change. Other Democratic constituencies across the country, who have so long suffered the most damage from the servitude of the government school monopoly, don’t believe in the unions’ myths anymore. They’re realizing that for decades, they’ve been played for chumps.

Here’s the other part. Stripped of the very last of their myths, what did the unions do? They resorted to a combination of outright lies and backroom subterfuge. In other words, they’ve stopped even pretending to have an argument on their side.

The official evaluation found that the program is improving educational outcomes, but the unions and their Senate champion have repeatedly lied to Congress about this, claiming that the evaluation found the opposite. And the effort to kill the program has retreated from the spotlight. Instead of attempting to shut the program down outright, union-controlled senators are now attempting to quietly write new regulations for the program that will kill it by making it impracticable.

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