The liberal nature of vouchers? Look to your history.

A story today on Stateline.org shortchanges much of the Democratic support that has rallied behind proposals for school vouchers and tax credit scholarships in several states. But a greater lapse may be the characterization of who has historically supported private-learning options.

Much of that is understandable, given that Republicans have been the most vocal in advocating for greater choice and marketplace competition in public education, particularly in the decade-long timeframe relevant to Stateline’s analysis. But the increasing Democratic support particularly for tax credit scholarships more closely reflects the reality of the voucher movement in the 1960s and 70s.

While it was economist Milton Friedman who introduced the idea for school vouchers in his 1955 essay, “The Role of Government in Education,” the voucher movement got a jumpstart soon afterward from liberal intellectuals and activists and Democratic lawmakers, particularly from Harvard social scientist Christopher Jencks, Berkeley law professor John Coons and Democratic Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan.

History knows Coons as a champion of equity in school funding, but he also fought unsuccessfully for a plan in 1979 that would have established “Family Choice Schools” set up by groups of parents, teachers or others as private, nonprofit corporations. Financing would have been backed by vouchers set at 90 percent of the per-pupil costs at public schools then.

Coons told the New York Times:

Today, we have gross economic and racial segregation because those who can afford it will choose their residence where they have, in effect, a private school based on public money. Or they will go to private schools and pay tuition. Under our system, families that do not have that kind of wealth will be able to go to any school in the system they choose. It is the beginning of a system in which ordinary people can share in the decision-making that affects their own lives.

Support in the public policy arena for tuition tax credits came from Democratic sources as diverse as Hubert Humphrey and George McGovern, who included proposals for the tax credits in their respective presidential campaigns in 1968 and 1972. But perhaps the most vocal proponent in the public policy arena for private-learning options came from the Democratic senator from New York.

Daniel Patrick Moynihan expressed public support for federal aid to parochial schools as early 1961, when he served as an aide to President Kennedy. But it was after his election to the Senate in 1976 that his support for tuition tax credits became, as the New York Times once reported, “monomaniacal.”

Moynihan had expressed pride in the bipartisan support he recruited for the tuition tax credit proposal he co-authored with Republican Sen. Bob Packwood in 1977, noting that 26 Republicans and 24 Democrats signed on as co-sponsors. Moynihan, too, also responded to opposition expressed then in the press, most notably in his hometown newspaper.

To the New York Times in 1977, he wrote:

We seek to reduce the artificial distinction between “public” and “private” schools and colleges, if not in governance then at least in the minds of prospective students and their families. Not until the mid-19th century did that distinction even come into existence. For many years, funds raised through public means were channeled directly into schools and colleges administered under private auspices.

Alas, Moynihan’s proposal failed, and the senator four years later reflected on the failure of his party to redefine its purposes in setting the nation’s education policy agenda:

In the late 1960s, educational vouchers were generally regarded as a progressive proposal. All liberal faculty members would wish to be associated with it. Good foundations would support it … It has, however, become increasingly clear that public funding of nonpublic schools will be advocated with vigor by persons on the political right. As the issue becomes more and more a conservative cause, it will, I suppose, become less and less a liberal one. If that happens, it will present immense problems for a person such as myself who was deeply involved in this issue long before it was either conservative or liberal. And if it prevails only as a conservative cause, it will have been a great failure of American liberalism not to have seen the essentially liberal nature of this pluralist proposition.

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