- Friday, January 15, 1999
Over the next few months, Nevada’s legislators will consider a school voucher program for the Silver State. The taxpayer-funded voucher movement continues to make headway across America, particularly since the U.S. Supreme Court’s recent decision not to examine the constitutionality of the state of Wisconsin’s program. But due to the Nevada State Education Association teacher union’s stranglehold on the education debate in Nevada, it is unlikely that state legislators will ultimately approve a voucher program of any kind. Fortunately, Nevadans who care about meaningful reform of education in the Silver State need not wait for enlightenment in Carson City. Private voucher funds are growing at an even faster rate than taxpayer-supported programs. Herewith, a look at how private vouches work—and how they can be established in Nevada.
Forty Years in the Desert
Education vouchers were first proposed by Nobel laureate Milton Friedman. In 1955, the libertarian economist theorized that as long as the government maintained its monopoly on schools, American students would never receive the top-notch education commonly provided by private and religious institutions. Friedman argued that the way to generate intelligent, capable graduates is not to spend more tax dollars on government schools—or tinker around the edges with tepid reforms—but to give parents educational choice. A voucher program, be it public or private, awards grants that are specifically earmarked for tuition—parents are free to use the money at any school. It took many decades for Friedman’s idea to become reality, but at the turn of the millennium, the voucher cause is finally picking up steam. A majority of Americans now support the notion of school choice (minorities favor choice by almost 70 percent), but vouchers continue to be attacked by the education establishment’s powerful political, public relations and legal machines. Thus, giving parents tax dollars to possibly spend at religious schools remains controversial. But constitutional qualms are no obstacle to privately funded voucher programs. As National Center for Policy Analysis Senior Scholar Dorman E. Cordell notes, "While the issue of using tax-funded vouchers to provide school choice is being debated and contested in the courts, an increasing number of privately funded voucher programs across the nation are making it possible for children from low-income families to attend … schools."
The first private voucher foundation was formed in 1991, by J. Patrick Rooney. The Indiana insurance executive created a fund which offered tuition to low-income children trapped in public schools. From its humble beginnings in Indianapolis, the private voucher movement has grown rapidly, planting flags in city after city and winning more and more converts to the voucher cause. Private vouchers are now available to low-income parents in dozens of cities. Each program acts independently, but all operate under the same principles. For example, most funds award vouchers to students who qualify for the federal lunch program. Vouchers usually cover half the cost of a child’s tuition, while parents and churches cover the rest. Early indicators suggest voucher recipients are making significant gains in achievement, but perhaps the best measure of school choice’s success is the sheer volume of parents trying to get their children into voucher programs. Over 20,000 applicants vie for the 1,000 vouchers available in New York City. Over 7,000 applications were received last year for the Washington, D.C. program’s 1,000 slots. A growing number of low-income parents are learning that there is an alternative to government-run education, and voting with their vouchers. This September 50,000 American children will attend schools with the financial support of private voucher programs.
Who’s On Board
The private voucher movement is by no means an odd ideological crusade led by wild-eyed zealots. (If it were, mainstream business leaders would not be playing such a high-profile role.) Many voucher contributors strongly support public education, but simply want low-income children to be able to attend quality schools, just as students from middle- and upper-income families do. Other voucher proponents come from an entirely self-interested perspective: they are employers who need competent workers and recognize that government schools no longer produce enough graduates with the basic skills they employees need. (Last year a Public Agenda report revealed that 68 percent of high school graduates are unprepared for the workplace.) Some voucher boosters are ardent foes of public education, and see vouchers for at-risk children as the first step toward the complete (and inevitable) privatization of American education. Yet all participants agree that something must be done to rescue poor children from failed—and often dangerous—public schools.
Getting Started in Nevada
CEO America, the organization which serves as a national clearinghouse of information on vouchers, has published a how-to guide for education activists interested in founding private programs. Starting with a history of vouchers and an overview of CEO America’s purpose, the guide explains the importance of a voucher program’s central goal and mission statement. The manual details how a voucher fund can be designed and how to recruit donors. Data processing methods are included, as is advice about how to deal with the media. The manual also features tips for the everyday operation of a voucher program, as well as standards by which its success can be evaluated. Nevadans worried about funding—it remains to be seen if major businesses in the Silver State would contribute to the cause—might want to use CEO America for grants as well, through the group’s $100 million Children’s Scholarship Fund.
Pouring more money into government schools—as politicians from both dominant parties appear all too willing to do—will never halt the decline of American education. Neither will "wired classrooms" or misguided class size reduction schemes. The answer is choice, and the means to give parents choice is public and/or private vouchers. While it is highly unlikely that Nevada’s teacher union-controlled legislators will pass a taxpayer-funded voucher program, education activists who seek to rescue Nevada’s low-income students from failed public schools can take matters into their own hands. By raising private money and working with an umbrella group such as CEO America, reformers could bring choice to Nevada education at last. In a state dominated by an education establishment enamoured of weak (or counterproductive) school reforms, vouchers would strike a decisive blow for meaningful change. Private vouchers for Nevada’s at-risk children are long overdue.
CEO America can be reached at (501) 273-6957. The organization’s website is http://www.ceoamerica.org.