Education, Featured

Sondermann: School choice ‘slippery slope’ crowd leaves underserved families behind

For a state of skiers and world-class ski hills, Colorado sure boasts more than its share of folks with an oft-expressed fear of a “slippery slope.”

Flash back to the November election and the campaign against Proposition 119, the so-called LEAP initiative that would have directed funds to after-school and out-of-school enrichment programs mostly for low-income and at-risk kids.

There were legitimate arguments both pro and con on this proposal. Colorado voters, in their wisdom, gave it a thumbs-down.

But among those opposition arguments, one frequently heard across social media with the flames fanned by those benevolent types who lead Colorado’s teachers’ unions, was that the measure would somehow lead us down a “slippery slope” toward school vouchers.

This is an oft-repeated, tired charge raised endlessly by entrenched interests most anytime someone offers some policy idea to expand school choice and to give parents (and children) access to programs not exclusively in the public sphere.

Three decades ago, even the notion of charter schools was attacked as part of this imagined “slippery slope.” Two decades back, the idea of creating the Denver Preschool Program, now a core part of the local early childhood landscape, was said to be part of this slope.

Within the last decade, dare to suggest any small step to begin to level the field and give needy families a fraction of the choice long available to the affluent, and like night follows day, be accused of leading us down that fearful, perilous, ever-so-slick descent.

The argument is not only dated and worn out but it is disingenuous and insincere in its selectivity.

Some of those living in fear of that frightful slope base their case in making sure that not one nickel of public money goes to any provider with a religious affiliation. But their voices fall silent when it comes to the G.I. Bill and Pell Grants which have put millions of Americans through college, including my father in the aftermath of World War II.

What is a Pell Grant or a G.I. Bill benefit but a voucher by another name? And why are all those so distraught that the parents of some middle-schooler might use a bit of public funding to pay for enrollment at a parochial school then so strangely silent when a Pell Grant recipient chooses Notre Dame or a veteran uses the G.I. Bill to enroll at Brandeis?

A few might try to dress up or rationalize this distinction. But at its root, it is hypocritical and centered in political opportunism on the part of organized adult interests invested in the K-12 status quo.

A voucher is simply a credit to use at a later time for some specified goods or services. Nothing more. If we are talking about Pell Grants and the like, the goods and services center on school enrollment.

But those hard-and-fast organizations, focused far more on adult agendas than child needs, have managed to demonize the word “vouchers” solely in the K-12 sector.

All around us, vouchers of all sorts are used with nary a second thought. Beyond Pell Grants and G.I. Bill aid, what is the SNAP EBT (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program Electronic Benefit Transfer card formerly known as a food stamp) if not a voucher?

In the realm of housing assistance, they do not even shy away from calling it what it is. Witness Section 8 vouchers which allow low-income families as well as the elderly and disabled to find housing in the private market using public funds. No one worries too much if there is a Crucifix or Mezuzah on the door.

Organizations supporting the homeless may provide free hotel vouchers. Back to the Denver Preschool Program, they call it a “tuition credit.” But it is a voucher.

Away from the public sphere, we receive an airline voucher if we are bumped from a flight. A gym might offer a voucher for a training session or a free month of membership. Buy a new car and you can expect to get vouchers for all kinds of free maintenance and goodies.

The sum of this is part and parcel of American life. Though propose that underserved families receive some kind of voucher to afford their kids an option outside the public school system and somehow you are on the wrong side of mom, apple pie and all that. Never mind that many of those most vocal in denying such choice to those needing it have plentiful means to take advantage of all manner of choice on their own.

It is quite the double standard, most prevalent in the well-off, left-leaning quarters of public education debates: “Full choice for me, but not for thee.”

Perhaps what is needed is just better marketing on the part of those who seek to expand choice. Instead of tuition credits or opportunity scholarships or vouchers, let’s call them Pell Grants for Middle School. In place of LEAP (whatever the acronym stood for), sell it as Pell Grants for Tutoring and Enrichment. Let the public unions then try to attack such well-established branding.

Now in the third year of interrupted schooling, there is no small amount of unrest and discontent brewing among parents. All that is further aggravated of late by last-minute school cancellations due to teacher shortages and “mental health” days.

The pandemic has altered so many patterns, institutions and ways of operating across all societal sectors. As we slowly emerge from this chapter (knock on wood), it can also serve as an opportunity to evaluate what is working with American public education and what is not. Maybe, just maybe, that dialogue could acknowledge ideological differences but focus on the merits of each argument instead of engaging in cynical plays to fear and rote invoking of some mythical slip-and-slide.

Eric Sondermann is a Colorado-based independent political commentator. Reach him at; follow him at @EricSondermann.  A version of this column originally appeared in Colorado Politics.


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