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.

Orwellian Reinterpretation of Desegregation Fuels Federal Attack on School Vouchers

Even as the attorney general of the United States, Eric Holder, commemorated the 50th anniversary of Dr. Martin Luther King’s historic “I have a dream speech” in Washington, D.C., his Department of Justice petitioned a federal court to halt the use of Opportunity Scholarships enacted by the Louisiana Legislature on behalf of predominantly minority children.

No, it wasn’t quite George Wallace seeking to block students from entering schoolhouses. Ironically, it was Eric Holder seeking to block the exit of predominantly poor, African American children from chronically failing schools in their search of a quality education.

Holder’s filing is a challenge to the rights of parents whose kids are trapped by automatic school enrollment by ZIP code, regardless of whether that campus is identified as a failing school. The Justice Department is seeking to bar the awarding of these scholarships, also called vouchers, in public school systems that are under federal desegregation orders, unless the vouchers first are approved by a federal judge.

Holder, using dubious data, argues that the exit of black children from failing schools would “impede the desegregation process” in Louisiana. He argues that the scholarship program is a civil-rights violation because schools become “whiter” as minority children flee their failing public school.

Reaction to the Justice Department challenge was fast and furious. Kenneth Campbell, president of the Black Alliance for Educational Options, acknowledged Louisiana’s racist history, but stated, “It would be a mistake to equate the current scholarship program that provides the only avenue for low-income children to escape failing schools to past efforts that supported and encouraged ‘white flight’ 40 years ago.”

The Louisiana program has been operational for five years and was designed as a voluntary program enabling low-income parents to move their children from low-performing public schools to either higher-performing public schools or to private schools. Last year, some 5,000 children participated; almost 8,000 scholarships were awarded this year. Eighty-six percent of scholarship students who applied were from schools rated as either grade D or F. Ninety-one percent of the children were minority.

Holder’s arguments are an Orwellian reinterpretation of desegregation fights. How does keeping kids trapped in recognized dropout factories advance the dream of Dr. Martin Luther King?

What is the value of an “integrated” school if none of the kids at that school – regardless of skin color – can even read at basic levels of proficiency?

Undoubtedly, the next chapter in civil rights and education law will no longer be dominated by mere demands for integration. Rather, school transformation and parental rights to end school assignment by ZIP code – truly five digits of separation from the American Dream for millions of children across the nation – is being embraced by parents who understand that education is the key to the American Dream. A fundamental rethinking of public education, including discussion of Opportunity Scholarships and vouchers is no longer “off the table” – even among Democrats embracing school reforms.

Sadly, this is not the first time that the Obama administration has moved against vouchers. It also zeroed out funding for the highly successful Washington, D.C., Opportunity Scholarship Program – even as he and the first lady exercised their parental choice to send their daughters to a very prestigious, expensive private school. Most parents in D.C. can’t afford to do that.

After Hurricane Katrina, Louisiana rallied to rebuild its schools. Not only have Pelican State residents rebuilt their schools, they have completely re-imagined education. Today, they are recognized leaders on achieving successful school transformations.

It is shameful that an African American attorney general would attempt to block the exits from failing schools in the name of justice. This is not why Dr. King marched.

Romero, a Los Angeles resident, served in the California Legislature from 1998 to 2008, the last seven years as Senate majority leader. This article originally appeared in the Orange County Register and is republished here with permission.

Cursing the Light

Teachers unions continue to use empty rhetoric to bash promising school privatization efforts.

It is a given – and understandable – that teachers unions deplore vouchers or opportunity scholarships, arrangements whereby public monies are used to fund a private school education; it hurts their bottom line. With very few exceptions, private schools are not unionized, and every time students leave their public schools, fewer unionized teachers are needed. That translates to fewer dues dollars for the union.

So like pushy salesmen with an inferior product, the unions resort to evasions, distortions and outright lies to sell their wares.

The unions say, “Vouchers don’t improve outcomes.”

Actually, the data say otherwise. For example, the oldest voucher program in the country is in Wisconsin where “Milwaukee school choice beats the alternative.” More dramatically, Washington, D.C. Public Schools (DCPS) have the lowest graduation rate in the country – a rather pathetic 59 percent. Yet, the D.C. Opportunity Scholarship Program (DCOSP) just announced that its 2012 grad rate was 97 percent with 91 percent of the students going on to college.

The unions say, “Vouchers are unpopular with the public.”

That may have been true 20 years ago, but not today. Satisfaction with the DCOSP is very high, with 93 percent of parents happy with their child’s school. In May, the Friedman Foundation for Educational Choice released the results of a national survey in which 60 percent of American adults said they support vouchers. Also, the findings show that mothers make up the demographic most likely to favor school vouchers:

… 66 percent of moms with school-age children support vouchers for all students to obtain the best education possible. Mothers with school-age children also have more confidence in private school settings than in traditional public schools.

Unfortunately public schools didn’t fare so well in the Friedman study with only 39 percent of Americans giving local public schools an “A” or a “B” compared with 54 percent in 2012 – a 15-point drop in just one year.

(Another entity that is unpopular with the public is the teachers unions. According to a recent Education Next poll, only 22 percent of Americans think the unions have a positive effect on schools.)

The unions say, “… (Voucher) programs cost taxpayers millions of dollars and increase bureaucratic and administrative costs.”

This is a perennial union talking point. It’s also a crock, because voucher programs actually save taxpayers money. A good example is in Washington, D.C. where their choice program costs $7,500 per student – about a quarter of what is spent on students in the DCPS.

If we expanded DCOSP, the savings would be even greater. Looking at the eight states with the highest median per pupil educational spending in the United States,

… If only ten percent of these students took advantage of scholarships similar to the ones in the D.C. program, more than 621,000 students would move from public to private schools within their states. This analysis assumes that the scholarships would be worth 60 percent of the median current-year expenditure per pupil-or a bit more expensive than in Washington. The savings per-pupil would be great, 40 percent; in the aggregate, the savings would be greater still.

The unions say, A pure voucher system would only encourage economic, racial, ethnic, and religious stratification in our society.”

A little class warfare with your entrée? The suggestion here is that vouchers will segregate us as a people and promote civil disharmony. But the opposite is true.

The Cato Institute’s Jason Bedrick writes,

Seven empirical studies have examined school choice’s impact on civic values and practices such as respect for the rights of others and civic knowledge. Of these, five find that school choice improves civic values and practices. Two find no visible impact from school choice. No empirical study has found that school choice has a negative impact on civic values and practices.

The largest and most comprehensive of these studies, Dr. Patrick Wolf’s “Civics Exam,” found that private school students are, on average, more politically tolerant, more knowledgeable about our system of government, more likely to volunteer in their community, and more politically active than their government school peers.

Unfortunately, over the last few decades, civic education in government schools has significantly declined

Jay Greene, writing in The Wall Street Journal, adds,

It is no small irony that President Obama and Education Secretary Arne Duncan have been trying to shut down the federally funded voucher program that allows students to attend private religious schools in Washington. In 2009 the administration worked to prevent the program from being re-authorized. Only tough bargaining by House Speaker John Boehner has allowed vouchers in D.C. to survive. The administration that otherwise promotes tolerance at every turn is still angling to end the program.

It is not clear why private schools have an advantage in producing more tolerant students. It may be that private schools are better at teaching civic values like tolerance, just as they may be more effective at teaching math or reading. It is also possible that, contrary to elite suspicion, religion can teach important lessons about human equality and dignity that inspire tolerance.

The unions say, “Blah, blah, blah.”

The unions have a specific agenda and will pursue it at all costs. Whatever claims they make about vouchers serve to further that agenda and have little to do with reality. Their efforts to keep people in the dark forever – and their children in failing schools – are doomed to fail.

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.