When Liberals Love School Vouchers

A quick quiz for observers of the strange world of education policy and politics: When is a tuition scholarship not considered a voucher?

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.-Calif.) 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 college.

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 quality schools.

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.