A Conspiracy to Educate America's Children

We now learn that voucher scholarships to give low-income families a chance to move their children from a bad public school to a decent private school are actually part of a vast right-wing conspiracy aimed at destroying public education.

The authority for that information is the National Education Association, the nation's largest teachers' union. NEA President Bob Chase said, "those forces are actively engaged in deconstructing public education.

Not only that, but according to the NEA, this same conspiracy is linked to legislation and ballot initiatives to require unions to get permission from a member before that member's dues can be spent on politics – so-called paycheck protection proposals.

All this is in a booklet recently published by the NEA, and labeled "the most comprehensive report to date of an ultraconservative network that is pursuing an aggressive political agenda nationwide, including 'a state-by-state assault on public education.'" But, according to Associated Press Education Writer Robert Greene's news story, "if there is evidence, other than by association, that supporters of dues restrictions are motivated by a desire to dismantle public schools, it was not clearly laid out in the NEA's new 144-page booklet."

Some of the same people do contribute money to both the voucher movement and the paycheck protection movement, which seems to be prima facie evidence of a conspiracy, as far as the NEA is concerned. Of course, it has good reason to see both movements in the same light since both threaten its power. The teachers' union has a near monopoly on elementary and secondary education through the public school system, which controls 92 percent of all spending on education below the college level in the United States. And the union leadership is able to spend millions on political causes without regard to its membership, some 40 percent of which generally oppose those same causes. In California alone, the NEA and its state affiliate spent $9 million as part of a successful effort to beat Proposition 226, which would have required the NEA to get member permission for just that kind of spending in the future.

School choice advocates aren't expecting or desiring public schools to go away. But they, and a multitude of parents, are reaching the end of their patience with a system that condemns thousands of children to the kind of schooling that prepares them for nothing but the perpetuation of poverty.

They hope that private school vouchers, tax credits and the like will both rescue some of those children and force the public schools to improve because of the competition.

The NEA, of course, does not want any competition for public schools. It has only grudgingly accepted the concept of charter schools, public schools that operate somewhat autonomously. And too often, its only answer to the problems of low-performing schools is that they need more money.

Defending its turf, the NEA and its allies have opposed school choice on specious grounds, too. For example, Chase claimed in a Firing Line debate that tuition for private schools averaged something like $12,000 a year. There was no opportunity to correct his statement, but a Cato Institute study in 1996 found that the average private school tuition nationwide was $3,116, and that 67 percent of all private schools charged $2,500 or less.

The NEA says widespread use of vouchers will leave the public schools with the disabled and at-risk students, whom private schools won't take. But the U.S. Department of Education reports that more than 100,000 special education students already attend private schools at public expense. And at least seven states contract with private schools to handle at-risk students – dropouts, students with substance abuse problems, emotionally troubled students and the like.

The skimming argument is extended to the claim that widespread voucher use would result in private schools taking the best students. But in Milwaukee, site of the first limited tax-funded voucher program, evaluators found that the students most likely to use vouchers were those doing the worst in their public schools. The parents of the students who were doing well were inclined to leave them where they were.

If there is a conspiracy, it doesn't include only ultraconservatives. Nor is it bent on destroying the public school system. Rather, it encompasses concerned parents and business people across the political spectrum who are determined to see that elementary and secondary education in the future imparts the greatest benefit to America's children – regardless of what it does to the NEA's near-monopoly.

The National Center for Policy Analysis is a public policy research institute founded in 1983 and internationally known for its studies on public policy issues.