Andrew Gelman had a post on public support for school vouchers earlier this week. I held back on a response for a few days, because the Iran thing was occupying my attention and because I'm a little sick of talking about school vouchers. Is there anything new to be said? Maybe. Voucher support may be a proxy for the continuing fault lines about schools and class.
Gelman finds that voucher support is strongest among the very rich and the poor, particularly among Latinos. OK, now we need a little qualitative information to fill in the gaps.
The very rich are supportive school vouchers. Their support is mostly ideological. The actual proposed amounts for vouchers is a drop in the bucket for their private school tuition. Their schools would probably not even accept school vouchers. Non-Catholic, private schools have never been supportive of vouchers. The very rich tend to be supportive of all market-based, public policy solutions.
The middle class, regardless of party affiliation, has been opposed to school vouchers. Despite complaints about donuts in schools or math curriculum, the middle class likes their schools well enough. They have no interest in tearing down the entire system. There is also some fear about kids from poorer neighborhoods using their schools. The only way that Cleveland's school voucher program got through their legislature was by assuring the surrounding suburbs that no city kid would redeem a voucher at their school.
There is a racial component, but that's not the full picture. In New Jersey, some regional schools are getting torn apart, because the parents from the richer white neighborhoods don't want to subsidize the less rich white kids in the next town.
The poor have always shown a great deal of support for school vouchers. Some polls show nearly 90% of single, black mothers support vouchers. Latinos have always shown very high support for vouchers. Of course, these numbers have been questioned. Some say that if you ask a follow up question and ask the respondent "what are school vouchers," they can't answer that question. Still, what this shows is a profound dissatisfaction with public schools in poor, urban areas, and a willingness to try anything to fix them.
Latinos are also very likely to be using the Catholic schools in the cities, which are struggling. Without nuns to teach the classes, the schools are being shut down or tuition is going up. The schools, while perhaps not succeeding at suburban, middle class levels, are doing an adequate job of educating their kids. The parents feel that their children, particularly the girls, are safer in that environment. They may be working three jobs to send their kids to those schools.
The Catholic schools have been slow to support school vouchers. As late as the mid-1980s, they lobbied against them, because they didn't want governmental involvement in their schools. Recent budget problems led to a reversal in this position. Still, it would be a mistake to say that the Catholic Church is leading the voucher movement.
Evangelicals are split on the issue of vouchers. The hard-line types are against them. They are either home-schooling their children or have extreme distrust of the government. More moderate evangelicals and Baptists are in favor of them. Black Baptist churches in urban areas are supportive, because many of them are opening small schools in their church basements.
Rural areas are opposed to them. There are no private or Catholic schools nearby. No benefits for them.
Within state legislatures, there has been very little support for school vouchers. In strong union states, the Democratic party has close ties with the union and only a few renegade Black, urban Democrats have supported them. While Republicans are ideologically in favor of vouchers, all politics is local and the Republican leaders from the suburban areas oppose the vouchers. State legislatures have only succeeded in passing small pilot programs in the states, when a particularly strong policy entrepreneur pushes the policy through.
Most of the strongest voucher supporters from the 80s and 90s have moved on to other issues, because the political obstacles are too great. They are pushing homeschooling and computer aided education. Still, it is interesting that academics keep talking about them. It shows the power of a powerful and simple idea.
I like Gelman's chart not because it tells us something about vouchers, but because it shows us the class divide in education. There is a profound unhappiness with schools among the poor. This message is really important, and we need to keep talking about that.