Once upon a time (more precisely the mid-to-late 1960s) many on the left were into vouchers as an equity tool. Then, for a couple of reasons, the politics hardened for about two decades until coalitions of urban Democrats and Republicans worked together to pass choice plans in a few places and the highly influential Chubb and Moe book started to change how people viewed choice.
But those limited successes may have actually sown the seeds of failure for vouchers. Now, paradoxically, the school choice experience since the early 1990s has lessened the allure of vouchers as a scalable education reform but at the same time made these smaller “pilot” type initiatives like the one in D.C. seem less toxic and more harmless among an increasing number of players. Opponents don’t even really have a slippery slope to point to in any of the early adopter sites for vouchers. There’s not one in D.C. There it’s the public charters not the vouchers that are taking over and not in the other cities/states, even Milwaukee, where vouchers have been tried and the effects have been modest. In other words, vouchers are not destroying the public schools. Rather, systemically, they’re not really doing much of anything at all.
And that’s a problem for school voucher proponents who are left arguing the counterfactual that these pilots aren’t “real” choice programs and more robust programs would have worked better. Meanwhile the small programs become accepted and the proposals for big ones seem more and more marginal to the mainstream education debate.
Voucher opponents may be losing by winning…or winning by losing…