Vouchers by Ron Unz
Letters, City Journal (Letters), Winter 2001
I very much appreciated the excellent article by Howard Husock, describing the dreadful failure of our system of public housing vouchers. Mr. Husock convincingly suggests that an ideological fixation with naive “free market mechanisms” led conservatives to create a mammoth governmental program which has done little or nothing for the poor while seriously damaging portions of the pre-existing private housing market. Yet despite this clear record of failure, the political influence of housing voucher profiteers has prevented this decades-old program from being effectively challenged.
I therefore found it quite ironic that your very same issue also contained a column by Sol Stern advocating the rapid establishment of a massive system of public school vouchers, the latest of many such pieces which you have run. I believe that much of the current conservative enthusiasm for education vouchers rests on exactly the same sort of dangerously fuzzy market analysis so effectively critiqued by Mr. Husock with regard to housing, and that the actual establishment of any large scale educational voucher system (whether or not restricted to low income students) would inflict exactly the same sort of disaster recounted by Mr. Husock.
The recent election results indicate that overwhelming majorities of the American people appear to share my concerns. In Michigan, a narrowly-focused statewide voucher initiative outspent its union opponents by 2-to-1, but still lost by nearly a 40 point margin, dragging various Republican candidates down to defeat along the way. In California, a politically naive Silicon Valley entrepreneur spent nearly $30 million of his own money supporting a very broad voucher initiative, and lost by an even a wider margin.
I suspect that if conservative educational reformers invested even a fraction of their voucher time and money in attempting to return our public school system to the educational standards and academic quality of the 1950s and 1960s, they would achieve far greater results.
Palo Alto, California