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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

Bio

August 4, 2009 - 12:00 am

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.

This is just the latest in a long campaign of lies and double-dealing where the common theme has been the desire of voucher opponents to stay out of the spotlight. At first the Obama administration tried to do the bidding of the unions and kill the program, but it feared public scrutiny of its actions. So it suppressed vital information (even withholding it from Congress) and misled the public about what it was doing.

Fortunately, too many people noticed what was going on, and the administration — apparently calculating that opposing vouchers was a political loser for the president — retreated to a compromise position: those already in the program can stay, but no new kids can enter the program. The administration actually defended this by saying that vouchers are OK for those who already have them, but they’re deadly poison if you give them to anyone else. (I paraphrase.) As Jim Geraghty put it, the administration is saying in effect, “We know our stance is indefensible; please make this issue go away.”

Why all the lies and backstabbing and subterfuge? Why are both the administration and the union-controlled senators afraid of a straight fight over vouchers?

Because the unions have lost the fight for public opinion, both at large and within the Democratic Party. And they know they’ve lost it. And they’ve apparently decided that they’re OK with that. So they’re just not even bothering to pretend to care about kids anymore.

Let’s not indulge in naïve optimism. Having lost the public relations battle may in some ways makes the teachers’ unions more dangerous, not less. America’s last education labor reporter, Mike Antonucci, offers a sobering observation:

The public perception battle is over, and the teachers’ unions have lost. But will it have any effect on Congress and state legislatures? The NRA, tobacco companies, PETA, the ACLU and Big Oil all have negative public images they can’t shed, yet they are still effective in getting their way. What if NEA and AFT stop caring what other people think?

On the other hand, there is a key difference between the teachers’ unions and the other groups Antonucci mentions here, and that gives us considerable grounds for hope. All of those groups have retained power in spite of their bad public images either because (for the NRA, tobacco, and oil) what they really represent is the desires of consumers who want their products and mostly just want to be left alone and aren’t trying to mess around with other people’s lives; or else because (for PETA and the ACLU) they care very intensely about a narrow set of issues that most Americans just don’t care much about.

The teachers’ unions, by contrast, are fattening themselves by destroying the lives of America’s children. That’s just not in the same ballpark.

What’s more, the unions are a creation of government policy. Even people who hate certain consumer products or nutty radicalisms know that these things exist because some people really want them, not because government made them in order to satisfy lobby groups. Government didn’t create animal rights activism in order to satisfy the demands of PETA. Animal rights activism is just there, an unpleasant fact of life that we can’t get rid of however much we’d like to — a hemorrhoid on the body politic.

But the only reason we have dysfunctional education policies like government school monopolism or teacher pay structures that actively reward mediocrity or tenure that makes it impossible to fire bad teachers –- even if they’re so toxic they can’t be allowed near children –- is because the unions demand them. These policies are only there to feed the gravy train. They have no autonomous rationale for existing, comparable to what, for example, the NRA can appeal to. When government recognizes gun rights,  that benefits the NRA, but it also benefits the millions of Americans who really do want to own guns.

On whose behalf can the unions make any analogous claim, once they give up the pretense that their preferred policies are good for education?

Greg Forster is a senior fellow at the Foundation for Educational Choice.
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