Warren as school choice champion

Warren as school choice champion

Senator ambivalent on charter ballot question – but she’s been passionate supporter of school vouchers

WHEN ASKED ON Thursday about the November ballot question to raise the cap on charter schools in Massachusetts, Sen. Elizabeth Warren sounded a note of caution about the initiative.

“You know, I’m just concerned about the proposal and what it means for the children all across the Commonwealth,” Warren told reporters after delivering a speech at Roxbury Community College in Boston on the economic plight of the middle class. “Public officials have a responsibility not just to a small subset of children but to all of the children, to make sure that they receive a first-rate education.”

It sounded a lot like the argument of charter opponents, who have said any success of charters comes, literally, at the expense the district schools most students attend, since public funding follows students to whatever school they enroll at.

But Warren stopped short of saying she’ll vote no on the question. “Well, I want to hear more about what the plans are from this group that’s proposing it,” she said when asked how she plans to vote.

What may be giving Warren some pause is her longstanding embrace of a principle that is at the heart of arguments made by charter school proponents – that students’ ability to secure a quality education shouldn’t be dependent on where they live or their families’ income.

Charter school supporters say the publicly-funded, but independently-run, schools offer an alternative to families who live in a community with low-performing schools, most of whom do not have the financial wherewithal to move to another district with better schools.

The same argument is the basis for a proposal Warren made more than a decade ago that is even more disruptive of the educational status quo than charter schools – school vouchers.

In her 2003 book The Two-Income Trap, Warren offered a full-throated endorsement of a voucher system that would allow children to enroll at any public school within a large geographic region that crosses municipal boundaries.

Warren’s book, which she coauthored with her daughter, Amelia Warren Tyagi, focuses the economic stress facing middle-class families. The book argues that part of that financial burden is brought on by the pressure to buy a costly home in a community with well-regarded schools.

The concept of public schools is “deeply American” and embodies “the notion that merit rather than money determines a child’s future,” Warren writes. “But who are we kidding? As parents increasingly believe the differences among schools will translate into differences in lifetime chances, they are doing everything they can to buy into the best public schools.”

She mocks the idea of even calling schools in more affluent communities truly public, since they are only open to the families with the financial means to live there, with poorer families locked out.

“At the core of the problem is the time-honored rule that where-you-live dictates where-you go to school,” she writes. Warren says the solution is to break up the “ironclad relationship” between location and school and declares, “A well-designed voucher program would fit the bill neatly.”

Warren goes on to lay out a plan for a system of fully-paid vouchers to support attendance at any public schools in the region. “Tax dollars would follow the children,” she writes, adding that students who need extra resources, such as those requiring special education services, would get larger vouchers. “Every child would have a valuable ticket to be used in any school in the area,” she writes.

“An all-voucher or all-school choice system would be a shock to the educational system, but the shake out might be just what the system needs,” she writes. Over time, “the whole concept of ‘the Beverly Hills schools’ or ‘Newton schools’ would die out.”

Warren acknowledges another sector that would also feel a big shock from such a change: “If a meaningful school voucher system were instituted, the U.S. housing market would change forever.” She says some communities might see housing prices drop, while others would see increases. But she says the market would “re-normalize” after such a “one-time readjustment.”

Warren has had little to say since her election four years ago about the ambitious voucher school proposal laid out in The Two-Income Trap. But the idea seems driven by the same sense of outrage at the disparate education opportunities students have based on family income that has stirred the charter school movement.

Meet the Author

Michael Jonas

Executive Editor, CommonWealth

About Michael Jonas

Michael Jonas has worked in journalism in Massachusetts since the early 1980s. Before joining the CommonWealth staff in early 2001, he was a contributing writer for the magazine for two years. His cover story in CommonWealth's Fall 1999 issue on Boston youth outreach workers was selected for a PASS (Prevention for a Safer Society) Award from the National Council on Crime and Delinquency.

Michael got his start in journalism at the Dorchester Community News, a community newspaper serving Boston's largest neighborhood, where he covered a range of urban issues. Since the late 1980s, he has been a regular contributor to the Boston Globe. For 15 years he wrote a weekly column on local politics for the Boston Sunday Globe's City Weekly section.

Michael has also worked in broadcast journalism. In 1989, he was a co-producer for "The AIDS Quarterly," a national PBS series produced by WGBH-TV in Boston, and in the early 1990s, he worked as a producer for "Our Times," a weekly magazine program on WHDH-TV (Ch. 7) in Boston.

Michael lives in Dorchester with his wife and their two daughters.

About Michael Jonas

Michael Jonas has worked in journalism in Massachusetts since the early 1980s. Before joining the CommonWealth staff in early 2001, he was a contributing writer for the magazine for two years. His cover story in CommonWealth's Fall 1999 issue on Boston youth outreach workers was selected for a PASS (Prevention for a Safer Society) Award from the National Council on Crime and Delinquency.

Michael got his start in journalism at the Dorchester Community News, a community newspaper serving Boston's largest neighborhood, where he covered a range of urban issues. Since the late 1980s, he has been a regular contributor to the Boston Globe. For 15 years he wrote a weekly column on local politics for the Boston Sunday Globe's City Weekly section.

Michael has also worked in broadcast journalism. In 1989, he was a co-producer for "The AIDS Quarterly," a national PBS series produced by WGBH-TV in Boston, and in the early 1990s, he worked as a producer for "Our Times," a weekly magazine program on WHDH-TV (Ch. 7) in Boston.

Michael lives in Dorchester with his wife and their two daughters.

It would certainly enliven the debate over equal opportunity in Massachusetts if Warren were to put this “shock to the educational system” on the table.

  • Mhmjjj2012

    What’s with CommonWealth digging up a book Senator Warren wrote 13 years ago that nobody read? Why doesn’t CommonWealth come out and make the case for voting yes on Question 2? Because a case can’t be made? And what’s with US Senator Elizabeth Warren wanting to hear more about what the plans are from Great Schools Massachusetts? It’s more charter schools! Shame on Senator Warren for not informing herself on the charter school ballot question.

  • Jon Dreyer

    Show me a “failing school” and I’ll show you a failing community. And I’ll show you politicians who blame schools and teachers for their own failures to support that community. You can’t fix poverty with education, but you can fix education by fixing poverty.

    • James Clark

      I was going to write something then I saw that you already said it… :-)

  • Nancy Papas

    Milwaukee has had vouchers for over 20 years, and that school choice – so named becaue the school make the ultimate choice of who is and isn’t enrolled – has NOT improved education for the students or improvements in housing. Likewise charter schools are re-segregating students by race, test scores, long entrenched housing patterns, and by students’ special needs. Nevertheless, public schools still out-perform their private and charter competitors across the nation when comparable demographics are measured.

    While those other options sound good in theory, the rhetoric doesn’t translate into reality. They DO drain the public schools of the funds to meet the needs of special needs students which charters and private schools reject. The result is that the only school system that is open to all students cannot continue to serve them or other students as well as in the past. Competition was supposed to improve instruction and cause innovation, but the firerce competition for high scorers and market-share of students is causing gravitation toward programs that generate the largest enrollments at the least cost and NOT to those smaller, special populations who are more expensive to serve and who may lower scores. Rather than robbing one set of students for another, first let’s ‘do no harm’.