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.
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.”
“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.
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.