"Artificially manipulating" the school choice narrative

It’s hard to identify the political motivations that drove Arizona Governor Jan Brewer to veto an expansion of the state’s publicly funded savings accounts to help more disadvantaged students pay for private education. But we do have her explanation, one that pretends the expansion of private school choice would “artificially manipulate” the market to the disadvantage of public schools.

This fear of an “unlevel playing field” is a milder variant on the assertion that school vouchers would “virtually abolish public education,” as the head of the Lousiana teachers union told the Wall Street Journal for a story today. But it’s all the more surprising coming from a Republican governor who has supported school choice for the Grand Canyon State in the past. Does Brewer really agree with voucher opponents who insisted that last year’s adoption of education savings accounts for special education students was really just the camel’s nose in the tent, heralding doom for public education? Her veto suggests this much.

That few Arizona reporters would challenge Brewer’s explanation or express shock that she was the one making it shows how ingrained this narrative has become since the 1970s. At that time, United States senators including Daniel Patrick Moynihan were sponsoring legislation that would award tuition tax credits to parents who opted for private or parochial education. The opposition insisted this would inspire families to flee their neighborhood school.

Moynihan grew more exasperated by August 1978 when he took to the floor of the Senate to debate his colleagues:

The issue is not the future of the public schools. They now enroll more than 90 percent of all primary and secondary students and more than 75 percent of all postsecondary students. Although they do not lack for problems, their future is secure and is not the least threatened by our proposal …
… Far the more important policy question before the Senate is whether nonpublic schools are to have a future or whether the national government is to aid and abet those who would not mind in the least if they were to shut down entirely … Let there be no mistake about this either: In the field of education, the public sector is slowly but steadily vanquishing the private.

In other words, Moynihan, one of the most notable Democrats in the nation’s history, argued that it was the public sector gaining monopoly status by quashing any proposal that offered aid to the private sector. “In no small part,” the senator added, the security for public schools “is due to two decades of federal provision for public education.”

Thirty-four years later, a Republican governor struck down a legislative initiative she feared would unfairly disadvantage a public school system that now has a 90 percent market share of all school-aged children in Arizona, a security due in no small part to decades of state provision for public education. No single voucher proposal in the nation has shown the ability to so dramatically affect that balance. At best, Governor Brewer is naïve. At worst, duplicitous.

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