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Think Portability, Not Vouchers

The key federal education reform would fund students, not schools

11:00 PM, Jan 21, 2001 • By CHESTER E. FINN JR.
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Which brings up the second litmus issue: vouchers. During the campaign, Bush proposed to use "exit vouchers" to punish errant schools by allowing their students to depart for greener education pastures. Following a strategy that brother Jeb pioneered in Florida, he would let poor kids take their federal Title I money (about $ 800 apiece) to the school of their choice if -- and only if -- their original public school failed to make academic gains for three consecutive years.

Limited as it is, this proposal terrifies the public-education blob. Congressional Democrats have warned Bush that persevering with any sort of voucher will cause a legislative train wreck. (And weak-kneed transitioners have already hinted that they won't fall on the voucher sword.)

Talk about a mouse upsetting an elephant! Despite the furor, the Bush voucher proposal is barely that. Far from conferring the right to choose their schools upon millions of federally aided youngsters, it's really a small part of the public-school accountability scheme, to be triggered only in rare circumstances. Nor is $ 800 enough to pay tuition anywhere.

Most important, "exit vouchers" don't solve the central problem of the LBJ-era education programs. (Nor would a battery of new tests.) The core issue is that today the money belongs to school systems rather than to students. Thus Washington actually impedes school choice. Many states and communities -- including Rod Paige's Houston -- have made impressive strides in opening education options for children. Yet federal programs remain stuck in the 1960s, protected fiercely by the school establishment. A family may opt for a charter school, for a public school in a nearby district, even (in Milwaukee or Cleveland) for a private school, and it can count on state -- and sometimes local -- dollars moving with the child. Washington's money, however, stays in the public school system where the family lives.

Will the Bush team press for funding children instead of institutions? Listen for the word "portability," the third key test. Higher education policy got there in 1972 when a Democratic Congress and the Nixon White House, after much debate, agreed that Washington's main vehicle for aiding post-secondary schooling would be grants and loans attached to individual students rather than direct campus subsidies.

Portability would do far more good than exit vouchers by way of reforming Washington's troubled K-12 programs. And it has a further advantage. Bush-style exit vouchers would be imposed everywhere, including places that want no part of school choice. Hence a huge political ruckus will surround this little mouse of a program.

Portability, though affecting far more children, should be easier to enact so long as federal law leaves the states in the driver's seat. The key is for Washington to wrap itself around the principle of neutrality with respect to school choice. The White House and Congress should make the federal dollars portable but invite each state to set its own limits. Federal moneys would move precisely as far as each state allows its own funds to travel.

This is not a federal voucher program. It defers to states to work through the thorny choice issue in their own ways. It merely gets Uncle Sam out of the way.

Accountability. Exit vouchers. Portability. Watch how these are handled. Worry if you see the Bushies putting all their policy eggs in the standards-and-testing basket. Worry, too, if exit-vouchers are allowed to become either panacea or train-wrecker. They aren't worth it. But cheer when you hear the word portability. It's the single reform that would do the most good.

Chester E. Finn Jr., a former assistant secretary of education, is a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute and president of the Thomas B. Fordham Foundation.