January 26 2012
If all goes right for Massachusetts Democrats in November, they will fill the seat once held by liberal lion Sen. Ted Kennedy with a school voucher supporter who has proposed radically reforming public education in America.
You won't find a call for school vouchers on Elizabeth Warren's campaign website. Education is listed first among the candidate's top priorities, but the website sticks to safe, poll tested platitudes calling for "good public schools, good public universities, and good technical training" as the key to a having a competitive workforce.
Yet in her 2003 book, The Two Income Trap, Warren and co-author Amelia Warren Tyagi cite the traditional public schools system, in which children are assigned to a school based on their residence, as a key source of economic pressure for families with children. Warren and Tyagi call for system-wide reforms to break the link between where a child lives and where they go to school, and specifically make the case for a fully-funded voucher program that would enable children to attend any public school.
Written during the housing-value boom, Warren identifies the competition for slots in "good" public schools as fueling the rise in real estate prices. While home prices were rising across the board, families with children were outpacing the rest of the public in paying more for homes, because, Warren argued, a home in the right location was the price of getting into that coveted school. Over-paying for houses required great financial sacrifices from families, and created the potential for severe hardship if housing prices fell—which of course they did, effectively wiping away the savings of millions of Americans.
Warren aptly exposed the lie behind the concept of public schools as a great equalizer: "Schools in middle-class neighborhoods may be labeled 'public,' but parents have paid for tuition by purchasing a $175,000 home within a carefully selected school district." How to relieve the pressure on families? "At the core of the problem is the time-honored rule that where you live dictates where you go to school. Any policy that loosens the ironclad relationship between location-location-location and school-school-school would eliminate the need for parents to pay an inflated price for a home...A well-designed voucher program would fit the bill neatly."
Warren might have also noted how changing the structure and incentives faced by school officials could also lead to better quality schools. If administrators could no longer count on a captive clientele of neighborhood children, they would have to compete to attract students. Current road blocks to reform—such as the tenure system and inability to fire bad teachers—might be tackled more aggressively if school officials had to fear that they would lose students, and therefore lose funding, if counter-productive policies remained in place.
Research confirms what is considered common sense in every other aspect of life: Competition among schools leads to a more efficient use of resources and better outcomes. According to a meta-analysis conducted by Dr. Greg Forster, 18 of 19 empirical studies measuring the competitive effect of school vouchers found that offering families vouchers spurred public schools to improve. Forster similarly reported that most studies show that choice improves student performance. For example, the U.S. Department of Education's analysis of the D.C. Opportunity Scholarship program revealed that vouchers boosted students' test scores and graduation rates.
Warren may now be reticent to discuss her critique of the public school status quo. After all, teachers unions are a key part of the Democratic base, big party funders, and have vigorously fought proposals to give parents more schooling options. However, prominent Democrats—from reform-minded mayors like Cory Booker to power-brokers like Sen. Dianne Feinstein—have already blazed the trail by publicly backing vouchers.
This week is what's known in education reform circles as National School Choice Week. Reformers across the country are holding events to raise awareness about the need for and benefits of policies that give parents, rather than the education bureaucracy, control of their children's education. Candidate Warren should use this opportunity to discuss her research on this critical issue and demonstrate to Massachusetts voters that she will serve as a true leader and stand up for policies she believes in, even those that challenge her party bosses.