Perhaps the main count in Elizabeth Warren’s indictment against the confirmation of Betsy DeVos as Secretary of Education was DeVos’s support for school choice. Warren charged that it may well even have “disqualified” DeVos from the position:
Warren pointed to what she called DeVos’ “deep record of activism, bankrolling and lobbying for policies that would privatize public education” without meaningful accountability.
“Your history of support for policies that would drain valuable taxpayer resources from our public schools and funnel those funds to unaccountable private and for-profit education operators may well disqualify you from such a central role in public education,” Warren wrote.
Readers of yesterday’s Wall Street Journal would therefore have been surprised to discover this Notable and Quotable passage from The Two-Income Trap: Why Middle-Class Parents Are (Still) Going Broke (2003), by Elizabeth Warren and Amelia Warren Tyagi. The Journal helpfully notes that Ms. Warren is now a U.S. senator from Massachusetts, as you may have heard a time or two before. In 2003, while a member of Harvard Law School’s faculty claiming Native American ancestry for some reason or other, Warren wrote:
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 just because it happens to lie within the boundaries of a desirable school district.
A well-designed voucher program would fit the bill neatly. A taxpayer-funded voucher that paid the entire cost of educating a child (not just a partial subsidy) would open a range of opportunities to all children. . . . Fully funded vouchers would relieve parents from the terrible choice of leaving their kids in lousy schools or bankrupting themselves to escape those schools.
We recognize that the term “voucher” has become a dirty word in many educational circles. The reason is straightforward: The current debate over vouchers is framed as a public-versus-private rift, with vouchers denounced for draining off much-needed funds from public schools. The fear is that partial-subsidy vouchers provide a boost so that better-off parents can opt out of a failing public school system, while the other children are left behind.
But the public-versus-private competition misses the central point. The problem is not vouchers; the problem is parental choice. Under current voucher schemes, children who do not use the vouchers are still assigned to public schools based on their zip codes. This means that in the overwhelming majority of cases, a bureaucrat picks the child’s school, not a parent. The only way for parents to exercise any choice is to buy a different home—which is exactly how the bidding wars started.
Short of buying a new home, parents currently have only one way to escape a failing public school: Send the kids to private school. But there is another alternative, one that would keep much-needed tax dollars inside the public school system while still reaping the advantages offered by a voucher program. Local governments could enact meaningful reform by enabling parents to choose from among all the public schools in a locale, with no presumptive assignment based on neighborhood. Under a public school voucher program, parents, not bureaucrats, would have the power to pick schools for their children—and to choose which schools would get their children’s vouchers.
Warren’s “evolution” on the issue of school choice can’t help but remind us of Mrs. Warren’s Profession, though in this case the motive force is lust for political power rather than financial need.