Ballot Box

Policy Corner: Bush’s Voucher Mandate

Al Gore made one comment in Tuesday night’s debate that sounded suspect to me. It was when he went after George W. Bush’s education proposal. “Under your plan, Governor Bush, states would be required to pay vouchers to students to match the vouchers that the federal government would put up,” Gore said. He then repeated the point: “The state would be forced to, to match those, that money.”

Having heard Bush explain his education plan many times, I was certain that Gore was off base here. Bush has proposed that if a public school is judged to be failing for three consecutive years, parents would earn the right to take their share of federal “Title 1” money elsewhere. But Bush never says anything about states having to use their own money to fund these vouchers–or “accountability scholarships,” as his campaign prefers to call them. Indeed, Bush consistently pays homage to the conservative hobbyhorse of “local control.” (This fixation has screwed up his education plan in other ways, mainly by dictating an absurdly complicated system of state tests conforming to national norms instead of straightforward federal standards.)

Gore’s description of Bush’s education plan was also at odds with the way the governor explained his own proposal in the debate. “First of all, vouchers are up to states,” Bush said. “If you want to do a voucher program in Missouri, fine. See, I strongly believe in local control of schools. I’m a governor of a state, and I don’t like it when the federal government tells us what to do. I’m for local control of schools.” Bush then went on to explain that under his plan, if a school fails, “that federal portion of federal money will go to the parent so the parent can go to a tutoring program or another public school or another private school.”

But then I looked it up. As it turns out, Gore is entirely correct. It’s right here in the fine print on Bush’s Web site, on the fact sheet that accompanied a speech he gave in Los Angeles more than a year ago titled “No Child Left Behind.” According to this policy paper, Bush would require that all states:

… offer parents of these students [those in schools judged to be failing after three years] portable funds, which can be used to obtain for their child an education at a school of their choice or supplemental education services. These funds (worth an average $1,500 per child) will consist of the student’s pro rata share of Title 1 funds, provided by the Local Education Agency, and an equal amount provided by the state from its federal or state funds [italics added].

In other words, Bush does obviate local control and require states to help pay for vouchers for students in failing schools. It’s not just federal cuff link–it’s an unfunded, or at least an underfunded mandate! In the past, I’ve criticized Bush’s voucher plan by arguing that $1,500 is an amount better suited to paying for weekly piano lessons than for tuition at even the shabbiest of private schools. If you want a real test of vouchers (which I’d like to see), you have to shell out more money for it. But Bush’s chit is even chintzier than I thought. It provides only an average of $750 in Title 1 money for every child left behind. States would have to scramble for another $750, pulling it either from other pots of federal education money (which are far smaller than Title 1), from their own taxpayers, or, as a Bush adviser suggested to me, by soliciting private contributions. But in any case, vouchers are not entirely “up to the states,” as Bush claimed in the debate. They’re required in some cases.

Bush’s explanation of his position in the debate thus leaves us with a familiar choice. Do we assume that he was fibbing? Or do we assume that he doesn’t understand his own biggest proposal on the topic he says he cares most about? Had Gore uttered similar untruths in St. Louis, no one would have been inclined to give him the benefit of the doubt.