In the summer of 1991, alarm bells went off at the governor’s mansion in Albany. The New York State Board of Regents was about to consider a proposal to liberate 5,000 poor and minority students trapped in the state's worst public schools: under a pilot program, the children would have received tuition vouchers worth $2,500, usable at any private or parochial school. Mario Cuomo, without a flicker of his fabled indecision, swung into action. This shall not pass, he determined. Not on his watch.

Earlier regents’ deliberations about such hotly contested issues as condom distribution and multiculturalism had never aroused Governor Cuomo’s ire. He had remained silent when the regents appointed racial strife sower Leonard Jeffries to head a curriculum commission to detect bias against minorities. Yet when he heard the dreaded word “vouchers,” the governor leaped immediately into the fray. At a private meeting, he tried to convince the regents that the proposal shouldn't even be on the board’s agenda, that it was a dagger aimed at the heart of public education. In public, he called the limited voucher plan a form of “malign neglect.”

Despite the governor’s pleading, the regents went ahead and debated the voucher proposal at their next scheduled public meeting. After a spirited discussion in front of an overflow audience, the board rejected the program by an eight-to-six vote (one regent was absent and another abstained).

The mere fact that the state’s highest education authority would consider tuition vouchers, let alone come within two votes of approving them, sent a tremor through the public education community. Leaders of the education establishment thought they had killed the voucher idea when it was first floated two years earlier in a preliminary draft of the “New Compact for Learning,” a document of proposed reforms prepared for the regents by State Education Commissioner Thomas Sobol. In a recent interview Sobol said that he had included vouchers because he thought that when the state had tried everything to improve its nonperforming schools, and the children were still not learning, “why not at that point step outside the traditional public school system and try the private schools? ... Under New York’s Constitution, the state has a duty to educate the children. It is not a constitutional duty to protect the system.”

Sobol learned soon enough that the rest of the education establishment did not agree with his reading of the state Constitution. “The teachers’ unions and the school board associations and the PTAs were up in arms,” he recalled. “They basically told us they were out to kill everything if we persisted with the voucher proposal. The message was, ‘If you do this, nothing else will be done, and your agency will go nowhere.’ I pulled the private school proposal off the board. It was a political decision. I said to the regents, in effect, ‘Ladies and gentlemen, this reform agenda will not go anywhere as long as vouchers are on the table. The opposition is just too strong.’”

To Commissioner Sobol, a Cuomo appointee with impeccable liberal credentials and a staunch partisan of public education, the intensity of the reaction came as a shock. After all, the voucher program would have affected only a few thousand out of the 2.7 million students in the state. The children selected would all be poor, mostly minority, and they would be leaving schools where no learning was going on anyway. And if the experiment didn't work, it could be shut down after three years. Why the panic?

In retrospect, one can see that the interest groups that helped kill the voucher plan had a much clearer understanding of what was at stake than its proponents did.

Public education is New York State’s largest government enterprise. It is a $25 billion monopoly industry that doesn’t compete for its customers and is rarely even required to answer to its presumed shareholders—the taxpayers. The monopoly’s business practices are largely shaped by its employees, by way of the political lobbying and collective bargaining power of the teachers’ and supervisors’ unions. In 1993-94, New York State United Teachers spent $3.3 million on lobbying and campaign contributions-more than three times as much as the next-highest group. The political clout these millions buy the unions in Albany and New York City allows them a key role in writing the rules governing the licensing, credentialing, and hiring of teachers, the terms under which they can be fired, and how they are deployed in a school. The industry’s first priority is the job security and well-being of the more than 250,000 people who make their livelihoods from it. The children are an afterthought.

That is why it is incorrect to view voucher programs as merely one among many other possible reform options. In fact, it is the only reform that fundamentally challenges the monopoly system of public education from the outside. If the regents' voucher proposal had been implemented, it would have begun transforming poor families from a coercive system's cannon fodder into consumers with real choices. And then, if kids began leaving the public schools and parents were happy with the results, the program would have put a harsh spotlight on the public education industry’s monopolistic practices.

Of course, if the monopoly were doing its job—providing a quality education to all the state’s children—there would be no education crisis, and the voucher alternative would be purely academic. Parents are so passionate about their children’s schooling that if they were getting decent results, they wouldn't be especially disturbed about the public dollars the monopoly soaks up.

But it is now an open secret that in many areas of the state, the taxpayers’ money is going straight down the drain. If Governor Cuomo could characterize a never-tried, experimental voucher program as an example of “malign neglect,” how does one evaluate the non-voucherized public education system’s record during the 12 years Cuomo spent in Albany? It was during his tenure that the Empire State achieved the rare distinction of being the third-most-generous state in the country in per-pupil expenditure (currently a little less than $10,000 per year) while simultaneously ranking near the bottom in student performance measured by average SAT scores and high school graduation rates.

Not even the regents who were moved by Governor Cuomo’s entreaties and voted against vouchers believed that the public schools were doing well. They didn't defend the status quo as much as they pleaded for more time and effort, so that other, more acceptable public school reforms could have a chance to succeed. New York City Regent Mimi Lieber, who voted against the 1991 proposal because she believed it would take resources from the public schools, told me that “our kids don't have good schools to go to,” and she even blamed her own board for “not doing enough” to improve the nonperforming public schools. Or, as a New York Times editorial put this sentiment: “Vouchers become a copout for a system that has not tried hard enough to make itself work properly.”

Voucher opponents—at least many of them—sincerely believe in the mission of the public schools. What they don’t see is that a targeted and limited program of vouchers, by challenging the system from the outside, has the potential of actually making the public schools work better.

Consider the problem of failing schools. When schools in the private sector fail, dissatisfied parents take their tuition money to another school, and the failing school must respond either by improving itself or shutting its doors. In the public school sector, however, failure has its perverse rewards. Not only is no one ever fired and no school ever closed, but failure creates a rationale for even more jobs for the industry.

The State Education Department’s main remedy for failing public schools has been to assign the very worst to a special category called “Schools Under Registration Review,” or SURR schools (pronounced “sir”). Creating this blacklist of the damned has become the bureaucracy’s way of saying, “We take this problem seriously, we’ll provide additional resources, and if those schools still don't shape up, we’ll do something drastic.” Thus the State Education Department maintains an office in New York City that does nothing but monitor and minister to the SURR schools. More than 100 people are employed in this effort.

There are 90 official SURR schools in the city, but 300 more could easily be on the list, if the cutoff point used in the state’s performance standards weren’t so unrealistically low. The failing schools are spread out in clusters throughout every poor neighborhood in the city. A few have been reorganized, but almost none have been closed.

Year after year, hundreds of thousands of poor and minority children are sentenced to this archipelago of failure and despair. When the children emerge, either as dropouts or with worthless high school diplomas, most have neither the skills nor the knowledge to compete in the complex, information-based local economy. The failure of these schools to educate so many of the city’s poorest children endangers New York’s economic future.

Every other year, the city installs at 110 Livingston Street a new chancellor who says all the right things—how intolerable it is that we have allowed such institutional failure to continue, how no effort will be spared to whip the SURR schools into shape at last. The city’s newest education leader, Rudy Crew, is even more determined than his predecessors. Within weeks of his arrival in the city, he vowed to take over some of the SURR schools and rehabilitate them by sending in SWAT teams of new administrators and other remedial experts. But if money, resources, and advice dispatched from 110 Livingston Street or Albany could make the difference for these schools, they would have been fixed long ago. During the 1980s, the city’s per-pupil expenditures in constant dollars went up dramatically. All the extra money couldn't help the children in the SURR schools, because central bureaucracies don't know how to make good schools out of bad ones.

The illusion of reform from the center, however, does justify more dollars, more experts, and more bureaucrats. Thus the teachers’ unions’ favorite reform, staff development, is touted as one of the best cures for bad schools and their incompetent teachers. The basic idea is, don’t fire the incompetents; use still more teachers to “staff develop” them and thus create more jobs for the union.

Another in-system reform many public school educators have touted during the past decade has been school-based management. After developing it in Dade County, Florida, Joseph Fernandez brought the concept to New York City with great fanfare when he became schools chancellor in 1990. The idea behind school-based management is that individual schools will do better if parents are “empowered” and work collaboratively with the teachers and the principal, within a school council that might make decisions on everything from allocating resources to staffing to curriculum issues. But a critical report by John Fager of the citywide Parents Coalition for Education revealed that 110 Livingston Street had subverted this reform by giving teachers the majority in the school councils, effectively giving the union control over the councils’ decisions. Parents received only token representation.

Imagine, though, if in 1991 Governor Cuomo had been sufficiently embarrassed by the state’s education record and had signaled the regents that a voucher program for poor children in failing schools was at least worth trying. Imagine further that with the governor’s support, the program had been approved by the Legislature and that each year since then, several thousand students had left those 90 SURR schools to enroll at private and parochial schools. Suppose, too, that most of the students and their families were happy with their new schools, that the students’ academic performance had improved even marginally, and that there was a long waiting list of parents who wanted one of those vouchers. Now suppose that thousands of low-income parents in all the other awful schools in the city started clamoring for a pass out of the system for their own children. With the prospect of more children coming into the private sector, backed by public dollars, new private secular schools would begin to open. Parents dissatisfied with the public system would then have an even greater variety of schools to choose from.

If anything like this happened, new constituencies would develop with a stake in challenging the prerogatives of the education interest groups. If the voucher program managed to survive, producing a steady stream of children moving from the monopoly education system to a broader system of choice, parents and voters would take note of the differences between the two systems. In the one system, incompetent teachers are protected; in the other, they are held to account and even occasionally fired. In one system, many teachers work to the rules, refusing to put in one minute more than the contractually sanctioned six-hour day, refusing to attend more than a prescribed number of staff meetings, refusing to walk the kids out to the school bus. In the other, even though they make lower salaries, teachers do whatever has to be done to make the school work. There would then be irresistible pressure for major changes within the public school system.

Is this scenario too implausible, too utopian, for New York, with its ingrained statist political culture? Perhaps. But something like this has begun to happen in Milwaukee, the nation’s 15th-largest school district. A pilot voucher program started there at about the same time that the New York regents were voting down vouchers. It came about because of a struggle led by Polly Williams, a state legislator and the former director of Jesse Jackson’s presidential campaign in the state, and Howard Fuller, an educator and policy analyst—and something of a black nationalist.

With deep-seated resentment building up in Milwaukee’s black community over the abject condition of the schools, Williams was able to win support in the Wisconsin State Legislature for a limited voucher plan for 1,500 students, but only for non-parochial private schools. The program quickly became very popular in the black community. A recent poll of Milwaukee’s black residents found that 95 percent supported vouchers and 70 percent favored the inclusion of Catholic schools.

The Legislature responded to the community’s will and expanded the program to 7,000 vouchers in 1995, with 15,000 slated to be offered in 1996. This time the plan included parochial schools. Once again, low-income black Milwaukee parents quickly grabbed up the vouchers.

At that point, the state teachers’ union fought back in the courts, arguing that the program violated the constitutional separation of church and state. Backed by the ACLU, which has a longstanding opposition to any program that provides public funds for religious institutions, the teachers' union was able to get a temporary injunction stopping the voucher payments while the case winds its way through appeals and possibly to the U.S. Supreme Court. But so popular had the program become in the community, and so many allies in the business community had it won, that private groups, led by the Bradley Foundation, quickly raised enough money to pay the children's tuition in the Catholic schools.

Howard Fuller eventually became Milwaukee schools superintendent and fought the teachers’ union for most of his term, until he resigned early last year. “I am not supporting vouchers because I just want to let a small number of kids escape lousy public schools,” says Fuller. “I believe this is a strategy that will create opportunities for all the kids, because even in the public school system people will begin to make demands. They will begin to ask why can’t this happen in the public schools if it is happening outside the system. It will create an entirely new dynamic.”

Something like that does seem to be happening in Wisconsin. For example, the Milwaukee School Board recently announced an expansion of the public school choices available to parents, and the State Legislature has voted to allow school districts to contract out educational services to private companies at some public schools.

Williams and Fuller, despite their radical backgrounds, were able to make common cause with Republican Governor Tommy Thompson, elements in the business community, and “new Democrats” such as Milwaukee mayor John Norquist. Similar crossover alliances of black community leaders and Republican elected officials were behind new voucher initiatives in other cities and states. In June 1995 the Ohio Legislature, with the enthusiastic support of Republican Governor George Voinovich, passed a voucher bill almost identical to the proposal the New York regents debated in 1991. Slated to begin in September 1996, the program will provide 2,000 low-income families in Cleveland with tuition vouchers worth $2,500, usable at private or parochial schools. In Jersey City, GOP Mayor Bret Schundler, who received 40 percent of the black vote, has pushed for a similar program, presently under study by a commission appointed by Governor Christie Whitman. In the meantime, when PepsiCo managers offered to fund a version of the program, union opposition and threats of a statewide Pepsi boycott quickly cowed the company into changing its mind.

In November the House of Representatives, for the first time ever, approved voucher legislation for the District of Columbia. The bill was sponsored by Republican Congressman Steve Gunderson of Wisconsin and supported by the black superintendent of schools, Franklin Smith. As part of the District of Columbia appropriations bill, an unlimited number of tuition vouchers worth $3,000 would be available for all Washington, D.C., children below the poverty line. The vouchers could be used in any private or parochial school in the District or in surrounding counties. Unless held up in the courts, the program would start this year.

What is missing so far in New York is anything resembling that crossover alliance between reform-minded Republicans and leaders from those communities most victimized by the condition of the public schools. Indeed, in the Empire State, Republican and Democratic officeholders seem to compete with one another in currying favor with the teachers’ unions. After his victory over Mario Cuomo, George Pataki selected Diane Ravitch as co-chairman (along with investment banker and Catholic schools advocate Peter Flanigan) of his transition committee on elementary and high school education. This was a hopeful sign because Ravitch, the noted historian and former assistant secretary of education, has been one of the few prominent education reformers in the state who have dared to speak out for a package of system-challenging reforms—including giving poor children trapped in failing schools the choice of escaping to private or parochial schools.

The transition committee report supported vouchers (which it called “scholarships”) and also recommended legislation that would allow individual school districts to contract for instructional services with private companies in schools that were failing. Ravitch says she knew that Mario Cuomo would never cross the teachers’ unions, but she thought it was possible that Pataki would do the right thing.

Anything is possible, of course. Governor Pataki could wake up one morning and declare himself a bold education reformer, tapping the support for vouchers in the minority community and taking on the teachers’ unions—just as his Republican colleagues, Governors Thompson of Wisconsin and Voinovich of Ohio, have done. So far, however, it appears that the governor has no definable education agenda. Indeed, no one in the administration seems able to locate a copy of the transition committee’s report. Even in New York’s city hall, movement toward education reform seems stalled—or worse. From the moment he took office, Rudolph Giuliani demanded mayoral control over the education system, promising that if he were in charge, the central bureaucracy would be “smashed” and more decisions over budgets and hiring would be made at the individual school level. But last fall, presumably bowing to the intimidating power the teachers’ unions exercise over the political process, the mayor negotiated a contract with the city teachers’ union that would have moved the education system in precisely the opposite direction. When the rank and file, overreaching themselves, rejected the contract, commentators focused on money considerations rather than on the more important issue of the contract’s implications for the mayor's reform agenda.

Diane Ravitch has described the city’s public school system as a nineteenth-century structure designed to “replicate a factory-style assembly line.” The mayor’s proposed contract would have locked the city into that nineteenth-century system of hierarchical, bureaucratic work rules until the beginning of the twenty-first century. Centralized, one-size-fits-all rules and regulations would continue to be imposed on almost all of the city’s more than 1,000 schools.

A year ago the mayor stood up to the custodians’ union and the Board of Education and insisted on a contract that for the first time obtained a degree of accountability from one of the system’s special interests. By allowing the city to privatize custodial services at individual schools, the contract put competitive pressure on the remaining union custodians. By contrast, the mayor proposed a teachers’ contract that would have protected all the teachers’ perks, including the notoriously wasteful sabbaticals and the extra winter holiday period negotiated in the last contract, but in return would have given the city no greater ability to hold teachers accountable for their performance.

The contract would have done nothing to help individual schools break free of the central bureaucracy's rules and regulations or develop their own workplace ethos and teaching strategies best suited to their students. It would have left in place the present byzantine work rules: the principal can't ask teachers to hold a staff meeting during a lunch period, can't hold more than a prescribed number of after-school staff meetings, can't ask teachers to walk the children to the corner on dismissal, and must make many in-school assignments based on seniority and an arbitrary credentialing system. Indeed, the proposed contract added a new restriction: principals would no longer be able to ask teachers to cover lunchrooms or patrol the hallways.

Claiming that it had at least done something for school-based reform, the mayor’s office insisted that the contract would for the first time allow principals to fill teacher vacancies with the most qualified candidate rather than on the basis of seniority. But teachers’ union president Sandra Feldman immediately went public to dispute city hall’s interpretation. She pointed out, quite correctly, that a mere 25 percent of the teachers in a school would still be able to block it from changing the current seniority system for filling school vacancies. She reassured her members that even in those schools that vote for the new hiring procedures, teachers would dominate the personnel committees. The committees, in turn, “must award the position to the most experienced qualified applicant unless someone else possesses extraordinary qualifications,” according to the union. And unsuccessful candidates could always appeal. In other words, the contract would have guaranteed continued seniority protection and still more bureaucracy. Innovation, creativity, and autonomy at schools would continue to be undermined, while centralized bureaucratic enforcement of the work rules was strengthened.

The teachers’ rejection of the contract on Pearl Harbor Day sent shock waves through city hall. But the impasse gives the mayor a second chance to re-establish his credentials as an education reformer. He might consider whether the best approach to so obstructionist a force as the union is accommodation—or confrontation. Indeed, he might even start thinking the unthinkable—a voucher proposal.

The mayor’s willingness to accept the retrograde work rules in the proposed contract ought to give the public school reform coalition some pause. The reform movement’s strategy is to create a liberated zone of small, autonomous schools—on the school-based management model, or the public school choice model, or the charter school model—and then gradually to expand that liberated zone until it reaches critical mass and creates irresistible pressure that tips the rest of the system toward school autonomy. But the proposed teachers’ contract raises the question of whether the system of central regulations and work rules is more likely to subvert the autonomous schools movement rather than the other way around.

This is precisely the problem anticipated by John Chubb and Terry Moe in their 1990 book Politics, Markets and America’s Schools (excerpted in the first issue of City Journal, Autumn 1990). Chubb and Moe argued that although public school choice is better than no choice, school-based management better than centralized management, and small alternative schools better than traditional schools, these reforms could accomplish only so much. In Chubb and Moe’s formulation, they were all “system-preserving reforms.”

That’s why a more radical reform like vouchers, coming from outside the system and directly challenging its most fundamental assumptions and settled arrangements, is essential to force change on an establishment that has resisted it with every fiber of its being and dollar of its lobbying fund. For the present moment, however, vouchers remain the reform that dares not speak its name. The New York Democratic Party in control of the Assembly, once the party of urban ethnics that supported tuition tax credits for parochial schools, has been captured by the teachers’ unions and the public education industry. But since the Republican governor and his legislative allies seem to have abdicated, it is the Democrats who will give us an education bill next spring. It is likely to make some changes in the governance of the system but will essentially keep the monopoly in place. Which means moving the deck chairs around on the Titanic.

The public, on the other hand, is way ahead of the politicians. The Empire State Survey on Education (a joint project of the Empire Foundation and the Lehrman Institute) asked New York City residents whether they agreed that “district school boards should be abolished and control of schools placed in the hands of parent-teacher councils in the schools.” This is a very strong version of school-based management, one of the pillars of the public school reform coalition’s strategy. Yet it was supported by only a narrow 46 to 40 percent margin. The more radical idea of vouchers does much better with the public. In July 1995, the same survey organization conducted a statewide opinion poll using a randomly selected sample of 1,218 residents. By a majority of 54 to 42 percent, New Yorkers favored a program that “would allow parents to send their children to the public, parochial, or private school of their choice and use state and local tax dollars to pay for all or part of it.” Amazingly, the support for private school choice was higher in liberal New York City (60 to 37 percent) than in the state overall. Parents with children in the public schools supported vouchers by 57 to 40 percent; blacks supported it by 61 to 32 percent-almost two-to-one. Moreover, 60 percent of state residents and 63 percent of city residents agreed with the statement that tuition voucher plans “would improve the quality of the education children receive in this country.”

In other words, parents prefer vouchers to public school reforms such as school-based management and parent-teacher councils. Their first priority is good schools for their children, and they apparently believe that the best way to achieve that is to give education consumers real choices.

Having that right to choose is, of course, an issue of fairness and equity. It is simply wrong to trap poor children in failing schools when there are good alternatives just a few blocks away, and when families with money are able to exercise that choice. Commissioner Sobol had it right four years ago in insisting that legally and ethically, the state Constitution requires educating children by any means necessary, rather than protecting the monopoly system of public education.

Beyond the issue of equity is a practical and political consideration. It is clear that in New York City a strategy of school improvement that merely relies on a combination of inside-the-system reforms such as small schools, public school choice, school-based management, and decentralization will come up short. Under the pervasive influence of the teachers’ unions and other special interests, the system has shown its ability to eat up these reforms. Paradoxically, then, it may be that only voucher programs, with the imminent prospect of freeing the monopoly system’s captive children, could persuade the interests to stop sabotaging improvement.

But no matter which reforms we support, we should agree that employees who provide a government service, paid from taxpayer funds, should not be able to exercise veto power over how that service is delivered. Americans would not tolerate a situation in which social workers employed by the government set the limits of welfare reform. Just as surely, New Yorkers and all Americans will someday refuse to allow the teachers we hire to dictate what kinds of schools we make for our children.


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