Both the Republicans and Democratic supporters of Al Gore have been laying into Bill Bradley for reversing his position on school choice. New Hampshire State Senator Lou Allesandro, a Gore backer, was quoted yesterday in the Manchester Union-Leader saying that Bradley recently changed his position from pro-voucher to anti-voucher “for political expediency.” The current issue of Newsweek makes the same claim, charging Bradley with a flip-flop on the issue.
The critics note that Bradley voted for experimental voucher programs in the Senate as recently as 1992 but now says he doesn’t think vouchers are the answer to problems of education. In an appearance last week in Cleveland–where a voucher program has been the subject of a heated court battle–Bradley also raised an objection to vouchers based on the separation of church and state.
Sounds like an open-and-shut case. But Bradley’s position isn’t really contradictory. It’s perfectly consistent–and reasonable–to support small-scale experiments with vouchers while expressing skepticism about their potential efficacy and about whether they can pass constitutional muster. The argument is that since no one knows for certain what kind of education reform will ultimately be most effective, we should try a lot of different ideas on a relatively small scale. This was, in fact, Bradley’s stated position when he was in the Senate. Here’s what he said about vouchers at a National Press Club lunch in 1991:
I think the jury is out as to whether it actually would lead to an improvement of education. I think that choice should be considered. I have some reservations about it, but in the course of an education bill that moves through the Congress I think we can look at it thoroughly, and it is a possibility. As I say, I have some reservations about it, and I think that you have to confront some of the basic questions about who will receive the vouchers. And if you receive a voucher, are you allowed to go to any school in the state? Are you allowed to go to only certain schools? Are you allowed to go to public or private schools? Are you allowed–there are 15 or 20 different questions that are raised by the issue of choice and education vouchers.
In 1992, Bradley was one of three Democrats to vote for Bush-supported legislation that included funding for voucher experiments. In endorsing that bill (which never passed) Bradley made the same point again: When it comes to education reform, even imperfect notions are worth trying. “Choice may not be the panacea for all our nation’s education ills,” he said in a speech on the Senate floor, “but we cannot afford not to take an honest look at whether more options would help kids who today are trapped in the worst schools in our poorest areas.”
The only thing that would represent a reversal of Bradley’s view would be a categorical statement that he no longer supports any experiments with vouchers. This is Gore’s position, and the one demanded by the teachers’ unions. Bradley, who is interested in vying for their endorsements, may cave and contradict his earlier statements on the subject. But he hasn’t done so yet.