Ballot Box

Green Light, Red Flag

Opening the floodgates for school vouchers won’t help Republicans.

Yesterday, the Supreme Court ruled that states can fund educational vouchers even if nearly all parents who use them spend the money on religious schools. Conservatives rejoiced at the ruling, arguing that it will turn the political tide in favor of vouchers and Republican candidates who support them. They are mistaken. The voucher decision is unfolding much as a Supreme Court ruling on abortion did 13 years ago, and the analogy isn’t auspicious.

In the abortion case, Webster v. Reproductive Health Services, the court held that states could ban the use of public health facilities for abortions and could require fetal viability testing before late-second-trimester abortions. The voucher case resembles Webster in several respects. In each case, the court allowed states to adopt a controversial policy but didn’t mandate that policy. In each case, the court’s five-member majority portrayed the ruling as a simple extension of previous decisions. In each case, the four dissenters denounced the ruling as a radical demolition of constitutional protections. And in each case, conservative activists played into the hands of liberals by trumpeting the ruling as a huge turning point and an invitation to legislate everywhere.

In the hours since the voucher ruling, conservative interest groups, led by the Institute for Justice, which spearheaded the legal battle for vouchers, have flooded the media with vows of sweeping political change. Clint Bolick, the institute’s vice president, says voucher proponents will “shift from defense to offense” now that the court has given them a “green light.” He promises to file suits in 36 states against laws that strictly separate church and state. He says his allies will file bills to establish vouchers or tuition tax credits in six to 12 states. Conservatives claim that the decision liberates the GOP to push vouchers as a 2002 campaign issue. Bolick says it puts President Bush “in a position of matching rhetoric with action.”

It’s easy to understand why supporters of these programs are jumping up and down and promising lots of litigation and legislation. They just won the biggest court victory of their careers. Anti-abortion activists did the same thing after winning Webster in 1989, and it killed them. Talking about sweeping change is almost never a good idea, because most Americans distrust sweeping change, and the people most likely to wake up and do something about whatever change you’re talking about are the people who don’t like it.

That’s what happened in 1989. Pro-choice Supreme Court justices wrote scary things about how big and bad Webster was, hoping that pro-choice voters would rise up against it. In promoting that spin, they got help not only from pro-choice activists but also from pro-life activists who couldn’t contain their boastful enthusiasm. Many Republicans took the ruling as a green light to campaign and legislate on the issue, and nearly all of them got creamed, because pro-choice voters went to the polls to stop them.

It’s true that abortion restrictions pose a more obvious challenge to many voters’ perceived interests than vouchers do. And it’s true that polls on vouchers are equivocal, showing either a narrow preference for or against them, depending on how the question is asked. But polls on abortion are just as dependent on the framing of questions, and they share an important pattern with polls on vouchers: The more ambitious the proposal is and the fewer obstacles stand in its way, the more people get scared and turn against it. Voters have rejected vouchers in numerous referenda, most recently in California and Michigan two years ago.

Voucher proponents point out that poor people like vouchers even if upper-middle-class suburbanites don’t. That may be true, but it’s hardly a recipe for political success. The pro-voucher camp also complains that voucher opponents have won previous referenda by fomenting popular misconceptions, such as the belief that money for vouchers will inevitably be taken from good public schools. Sure they have. And they’ll do it again.

The public school system needs a serious kick in the pants. Vouchers, in one form or another, are a sensible way to do it. But don’t let that fact cloud your political judgment. If vouchers were a political winner, George W. Bush would have pushed them in his presidential campaign. Instead, he confined himself to Clintonian language about punishing bad schools. Then he dropped the idea altogether and teamed up with Ted Kennedy to focus on public school funding. He shows no more enthusiasm for vouchers today than his father showed for banning abortion in 1989. And with good reason.