School Vouchers Law? To Whose Advantage?


According to the Winter 2017 of Education Next, public support of vouchers is in steep decline.

Amid all the chaos of the new administration, Republicans in the House have quietly introduced a bill to use government funding for school vouchers:

H.R.610 – To distribute Federal funds for elementary and secondary education in the form of vouchers for eligible students and to repeal a certain rule relating to nutrition standards in schools.

All arguments about the worth of vouchers aside, why do our representatives continue to introduce bills that are overwhelmingly unpopular among Americans? The most recent issue of Education Next reported a study, authored by education and government policy professors at Harvard University, reviewing ten-year trends in public opinion on a variety of education issues, from the Common Core to teacher effectiveness.

When asked specifically about using “government funds” for school vouchers, only 36% of Americans supported federal funding for a voucher program of any kind. In fact, when asked specifically about using government funding for “targeted vouchers”—those used only for children in low-income families—Republican support dropped from 51% to 29%.

The report even notes the disconnect between public opinion and our elected representatives:

Republican support for vouchers and tuition tax credits is slipping, creating a partisan cleavage in the electorate that is the opposite of the divide observed among Democratic and Republican elected officials.

The authors of the study drew seven conclusions about public opinion on education policy. Some of them are unsurprising, but all of them reveal the complexity of the problems we face in offering sound educational opportunities to every student in our nation.

So where do we get sound, objective news about the policies that affect our nation’s children? The National Education Association, of course, reports from the perspective of its members, though it does link to various sources in its report on school vouchers. But even teachers disagree on the Common Core, on teacher effectiveness, on testing—and not all teachers choose to join the NEA.

Even journalists have difficulty sorting out which sources are objective and which are biased. In fact, the Harvard Kennedy School’s Shorenstein Center on Media, Politics and Public Policy offers a Journalist’s Resource on a variety of topics that might be helpful to all of us. Its report on school vouchers offers an explicit caution on the subject: “Amid such a heated debate, journalists should be mindful of who is presenting voucher research.”

Indeed, this is an excellent caution for readers on any topic that is open to political debate. In the world of social media, complex topics are almost always reduced to their most simplistic level, with tweets and posts that are intended to appeal to an audience that agrees.

If we continue only to lob provocative sound bites at one another—click-bait that we hope will be retweeted and forwarded—we will never move forward on the issues that face us. We are constantly bombarded with surface-level information, and politicians will continue to distract us with shiny objects as they quietly advance their own agenda, even when it isn’t supported by their constituents’ opinions or by education experts’ research.

We would do well to remember the caution Harvard gives to its journalists—to give less attention to sources we agree with and rely on the most objective sources we can find.

And in a political climate where our leaders are advancing their own agenda with little regard for public opinion, even among their own constituents—we would also do well to keep an eye on bills like H.R.610—that are quietly advanced as the media follows the latest circus.

The Senate just confirmed the most unpopular Secretary of Education in history—in spite of the overwhelming number of social media posts encouraging friends and acquaintances to call their senators. Within hours of her confirmation, the House introduced HR.899, To terminate the Department of Education.

Our efforts to flood the phone lines of Congress are important. But we must also insist that our news sources give us objective information and make the public more aware of just how often Congress is acting in ways that are contrary to the will of the people—and even of their own constituents.

The presidential election was close, with one candidate winning the Electoral College and the other winning the popular vote—and with almost half of eligible voters failing to cast a vote. No matter who won, neither side would have had a mandate to ignore the opinions of the majority, especially on issues like H.R.610, which a whopping 64% of Americans seem to oppose.

For a democracy to work, we must have an informed, engaged electorate. None of us can follow every issue. But our government has a vehicle to inform us of those we care most about. The home page has a search engine that allows us to get information about bills currently proposed in both the Senate and the House. Clicking on any bill leads readers to a summary of the bill, the full text of the bill, and the option to get email alerts as soon as any action is taken.

Former President Jimmy Carter once said, “It is difficult for the common good to prevail against the intense concentration of those who have a special interest, especially if the decisions are made behind locked doors.”

Difficult, yes. Impossible? I hope not. But we must demand that these issues be discussed in the public forum.

We must also sometimes be willing to sacrifice our own interests for the common good. And we must demand the same of our elected officials.

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