When Liberals Love School Vouchers
December 15, 2006
A quick quiz for observers of the strange world of education
policy and politics: When is a tuition scholarship not considered a
Answer: When the scholarship is for higher education, rather
than for elementary, junior, or high school. Pell Grants, the G.I.
Bill, and Hope Scholarships--all essentially vouchers--earn
wholehearted support from liberals who demonize "vouchers."
When Democrats take control of Congress in January, a first
priority will be to expand the popular Pell Grant program, which
provides need-based scholarships to more than 5 million college
students. Incoming House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) has already
announced support for such a proposal.
To be clear, Pell grants are school vouchers for higher
education. Under the program, students who meet certain income
requirements can receive a scholarship to help pay college tuition.
The scholarship is redeemable at one of 5,400 postsecondary
institutions. In all, federal taxpayers spend more than $13 billion
on Pell grants.
But Pell Grants are just one example of federal school vouchers
for higher education. In 1944, President Roosevelt signed the G.I.
Bill, which provided college scholarships to a generation of
Americans returning from World War II. More recently, President
Clinton championed tuition tax breaks--the Hope Scholarship and
Lifetime Learning tax credits--which give millions of Americans
direct subsidies to access higher education.
These programs work just like school vouchers for K-12
education. They allow students to purchase an education at a school
of choice -- whether public or private, secular or religious.
But while liberals are quick to support school vouchers for higher
education, they are much less enthusiastic about giving students
younger than 18 the same power to choose their school.
President Clinton embodies Democrats' strange position on school
vouchers. In 1998, he vetoed bipartisan legislation that would have
provided school vouchers to 2,000 low-income children in
Washington, D.C., calling the plan "fundamentally misguided." But
just a year earlier, he signed a tax package that included the Hope
Scholarship and Lifetime Learning tax credits. At the time, those
tax subsidies were projected to help 13 million Americans enroll in
a postsecondary institution of their choice after high school.
If Democrats are really concerned about equal opportunity and
educational access, they should end this bizarre bias against
choice for those under 18 and support programs that make it easier
for all parents to control where their children go to school.
This is important because increasing funding for Pell grants and
other higher education subsidies will not address the main source
of educational inequality in America. College Pell grants don't
help the 50 percent of high school students in some of our biggest
cities who drop out before graduation. Pell grants won't help the
nearly half of low-income 8th graders who are can't read. Millions
of disadvantaged children currently struggling in America's public
schools will never graduate from high school, let alone consider
There is no magic reform proposal that will fix all of the
failures of our K-12 system. That's why it's important to shift the
focus from the system to the student. Students have diverse
needs, and there are many schools that could meet those needs,
including private schools.
That's why school choice programs, including vouchers, hold
great promise and promote equal opportunity. Like Pell grants,
existing school voucher programs in Cleveland, Milwaukee, and
Washington, D.C., are structured to give disadvantaged families the
same opportunity that more affluent families already have
-- the ability to enroll their children in safe and high
A growing body of research shows that disadvantaged students
benefit when they are given school vouchers. Multiple studies have
shown that families participating in school choice programs are
more satisfied with their educational experience. Studies of
student test scores have shown that students who participate in
voucher programs outperform their peers.
In recent years, some liberals have begun to embrace school
choice initiatives, but nearly all Democratic legislators still
vote against school vouchers for K-12 education. A widespread
change of heart in the Democratic Party could usher in a wave of
school choice reforms to improve education options for
disadvantaged youths across the country.
Unfortunately, that day still seems a long way off. For now,
Democrats in Congress seem content to focus on spending billions
more on higher education vouchers (even if they refer to them by
another name) while ignoring the impact that vouchers could have
long before kids reach college.
Dan Lips is an Education
Analyst at the Heritage Foundation www.Heritage.org.