It looks like vouchers are an idea whose time has come. The teachers'-union-dominated Democratic Party has until recently steadfastly opposed legislation that would provide private school vouchers for poor kids trapped in failing public schools. But now there are powerful signs that the party's opposition may be weakening, even at the very top. True, Vice President Al Gore hasn't endorsed vouchers. But by selecting voucher sympathizer Joe Lieberman as his running mate in the 2000 presidential race, he makes it harder for defenders of the status quo to taint pro-voucher forces as part of a "vast right-wing conspiracy" out to destroy the nation's public schools.
Almost every week, another Democratic domino falls, bringing new defectors to the voucher camp, including former congressman and UN ambassador Andrew Young and Columbia Teachers College president Arthur Levine. Even progressive-ed guru Howard Gardner recently admitted in the New York Review of Books that American education is moving irresistibly toward a mixed system of vouchers, charter schools, and traditional public schools.
Another tumbling domino is The New Republic. Having promoted Al Gore's presidential candidacy for the better part of two decades, the liberal weekly broke with the vice president on vouchers just after the Democratic convention. "The presidential candidate is wrong and the vice presidential candidate is right" on vouchers, the magazine's editorialist intoned. "We do not fully know whether vouchers will work. But the Democratic Party must no longer be afraid to find out."
And now Robert Reich, Bill Clinton's first secretary of labor and a champion of the party's populist wing, joins the list. Writing in the Wall Street Journal, Reich proposed combining vouchers for poor inner-city students with equalization of education spending between the suburbs and the city. Reich didn't say so, but this is close to what Republican Lisa Graham Keegan is doing in Arizona as the state's education boss (see "What Is Public Education?" on page 36). Finally, the New York Times recently picked up the language City Journal has been using for three years and speaks on Page One of vouchers as a civil rights battle.
A George W. Bush administration (with Keegan, say, as education secretary) would mean enthusiastic White House sponsorship of some form of voucher legislation. But even if Gore wins, vouchers could gain ground. Suppose the congress again passes a means-tested voucher bill for kids stuck in Washington, D.C.'s horrendous public schools. With prominent Democrat defectors, overwhelming urban minority support for vouchers, and with Lieberman making a case for letting a D.C. experiment go forward, there's a decent chance that Gore would sign such a limited billif not out of conviction, then to continue the Clinton administration's tradition of co-opting popular Republican issues.
And what would the powerful teachers' unions do about their candidate's political betrayal? The same thing the liberal constituencies that helped elect Bill Clinton did when he signed welfare-reform legislation: grumble and adjust.