For Whom the Pell Doles

For Whom the Pell Doles

Why are vouchers okay for college students, but not for K-12ers?

Recently, the National Education Association posted an interview with Wes Moore on its website.

Two boys are named Wes Moore. Both grow up in fatherless homes in Baltimore. Both struggle in school, and run into trouble with the police. But one Wes Moore wins admission to Johns Hopkins University and Oxford. The other earns a life sentence in a Maryland prison. In his book, The Other Wes Moore: One Name, Two Fates, Moore confronts the “other,” and finds that there are no neat answers to the disposition of fate: “The chilling truth is that his story could have been mine. The tragedy is that my story could have been his.”

At the end of the brief interview, the questioner states:

Your mother graduated from college, while Wes’ mother was forced to leave school after the Reagan-era cuts to Pell Grant funding. Do you think this made a difference?

Moore responds:

Quite honestly, I can’t help but think how different his life would have been if she had been able to finish school. It’s about this idea of social capital, expectations, the people you surround yourself with… It’s not that Wes’ mother didn’t care about Wes. We work with a lot of kids, and over decades I can probably count on two fingers the number of parents who don’t care about their kids.

But the Pell Grant story—the reason I included the Pell Grant story wasn’t just because it was a powerful story, but because anybody who doesn’t understand the implications of that moment is missing the whole point. That was a huge occasion in her life, and it should inform how we discuss policies and policy implications. This stuff matters….

Yes, Pell Grants – aka education vouchers – matter.

The Pell Grant, after starting out as the “Basic Educational Opportunity Grant,” was renamed to reflect the law’s sponsor Rhode Island Senator Clayborn Pell.

These federal funded grants are not like loans, and need not be repaid. Students may use their grants at any one of approximately 5,400 participating postsecondary institutions. These federally funded grants help about 5.4 million full-time and part-time college and vocational school students nationally. For the 2010–2011 school year, 7 of the top 10 colleges by total Pell Grant money awarded were for-profit institutions. (Emphasis added.)

For profit institutions?

That means that college students are taking public funds and using them to attend a private institution of their choosing. (And it is not only Pell Grants that enable college students to pay tuition to whichever university they choose – public or private – using taxpayer dollars. The G.I. Bill, also a voucher program, does essentially the same thing for veterans as a way to help them assimilate into civilian life. It has been a very popular program since its inception in 1944.)

To its credit, NEA realizes the value of Pell Grants, as does its sister union, the American Federation of Teachers. In fact, just last year AFT president Randi Weingarten excoriated Wisconsin Rep. Paul Ryan for submitting a budget that would freeze the grants at their current level.

But when it comes to K-12 schools, the unions sing a very different tune. NEA’s website has a policy brief which reads,

Vouchers aren’t a strategy for improving the public schools; they are a strategy of abandonment that would leave America’s children behind. The battle over vouchers diverts time, energy, and resources from real school improvement.

And these aren’t just idle words. In March of 2009, NEA President Dennis Van Roekel wrote a threatening letter to every Democratic member of Congress:

The National Education Association strongly opposes any extension of the District of Columbia private school voucher . . . program. We expect that Members of Congress who support public education, and whom we have supported, will stand firm against any proposal to extend the pilot program. Actions associated with these issues WILL be included in the NEA Legislative Report Card for the 111th Congress.

Vouchers are not real education reform. . . . Opposition to vouchers is a top priority for NEA. (Emphasis added.)

Weingarten is just as hostile to K-12ers receiving public funding to attend a private school. During Mitt Romney’s run for president in 2012 she declared,

Today, Mitt Romney squandered an opportunity to participate in a meaningful discussion of real education reform by attempting to disguise attacks on teachers and public education as meaningful policy proposals. Instead of looking to improve education for all children, he parroted failed voucher and privatization schemes that have not improved student learning. Romney’s proposal to take even more money out of public education and funnel it to private schools is absurd at a time when school budgets already are being slashed to the bone across the country. (Emphasis added.)

Weingarten’s characterization of school choice through vouchers as “failed” is outrageous. These subsidies have not only improved education for the students who attend the schools of choice, but study after study has shown that kids who remain in public school also benefit when a voucher system is instituted and schools are forced to compete for students. The Friedman Foundation reports:

Twelve empirical studies have examined academic outcomes for school choice participants using random assignment, the “gold standard” of social science. Of these, 11 find that choice improves student outcomes—six that all students benefit and five that some benefit and some are not affected. One study finds no visible impact. No empirical study has found a negative impact.

Twenty-three empirical studies (including all methods) have examined school choice’s impact on academic outcomes in public schools. Of these, 22 find that choice improves public schools and one finds no visible impact. No empirical study has found that choice harms public schools.

So why is it okay to give vouchers to late teens to attend a private college, but not to 8 and 12 and 16 year olds to enroll in a private elementary, middle or high school? The principle is either sound or it’s not.

Obviously the unions are threatened by vouchers on a K-12 level because that’s where their primary source of funding is. Not nearly as many college instructors and professors are dues paying union members.

But maybe I am wrong and there is another reason for the unions’ inconsistent positions. Am I missing something? If you have an answer, please post in the “comments” area or email me at

Larry Sand, a former classroom teacher, is the president of the non-profit California Teachers Empowerment Network – a non-partisan, non-political group dedicated to providing teachers with reliable and balanced information about professional affiliations and positions on educational issues.

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