Why I Went From Voucher Opponent to Voucher Advocate

When I first started this blog twelve years ago as a neophyte in the education reform world, one of the first like-minded people I met was Derrell Bradford. Back then, Derrell was working with several New Jersey non-profits on issues like teacher tenure reform and school choice. I was (am) in awe of his indefatigable commitment to improving the lives of students, particularly those from economically-disadvantaged families, a mission I share.

He introduced me to other New Jersey education advocates, helped me overcome my stage fright to testify before a State Senate committee on tenure reform, and encouraged my writing. And, now, as I reconsider my stance on taxpayer-funded scholarships to private schools, my first thought is Derrell.

Why? Because Derrell made it out of Baltimore’s Sandtown-Winchester neighborhood, the same streets where Freddie Gray was murdered, through a voucher program. 

In an essay he wrote last year, Derrell describes a trip he took with 50CAN, a non-profit that “advocates at the local level for a high-quality education for all kids, regardless of their address.” En route to the annual summit, held that year in Baltimore, he rides on a bus with his colleagues “down the very streets I used to walk,” past “the staccato of boarded-up row houses,” “the first school I attended,” and  “just out of sight, the little red house of my childhood — now an empty and collapsing husk.”

He continues,

I mentioned this, quietly, to two of the people sitting closest on the bus, and it sounded like thunder. I talk of the place often, but I don’t think any of my colleagues understood that ‘this’ place was the one I meant: a place where the majority of houses sat vacant, a community devoid of its people — and opportunity.

An eerie calm hung over everyone, making the bright edges of the sparse conversations blunt and dull. And in my head, all I could think was: If I had to wait for this neighborhood’s school system to right itself — for a ‘talent strategy’ to be implemented, or for the central office to ‘right-size’ — I very likely would still be sitting there, watching this bus roll by, speeding away with one of my life’s possible futures locked up in it.

Instead, a scholarship to the right school—a private school in a time before charter schools even existed—lifted me up and made my education possible. It wasn’t a reform that took years of pursuing; it was a scholarship implemented on a single day with my admission to school. I did not have to wait. Why should any child?

I had heard Derrell’s story before and knew his personal experiences drove his relentless efforts to get the New Jersey State Legislature to pass the “Opportunity Scholarship Act,” a piece of legislation that would initiate a pilot program for low-income children red-lined into districts where decades of compensatory funding have failed to improve student outcomes. After all, he went from one of West Baltimore’s most blighted communities described by the Baltimore Sun as “rife with tension from Bloods and Crips” to St. Paul’s School for Boys, and from there to an Ivy League college and his current position as Executive Vice President at 50CAN and  Executive Director of NYCAN. 

Which brings me back to the two young girls I wrote about before, Tasha and Kayla, who sit in Trenton schools waiting for a moribund system to “right itself” because their mother can’t afford the rent in an adjacent district (my own). What if they could, like Derrell, “speed away” from their red-lined district with its 81% graduation rate and average SAT score of 823 and arrive, through a voucher system, at nearby  Villa Victoria Academy with its 100% graduation rate and average SAT score of 1250? Wouldn’t their futures be brighter? 

The answer is “yes.”

All the anti-voucher arguments in the world (some of which I address here) don’t change that reality. Yes, vouchers are messy, encumbered by the (false) dichotomy of public and private expenditures. and concerns about church and state. Yes, vouchers are virulently opposed by NJEA leaders, despite data that shows, according to analyst Matthew Chingos, that school choice policies can “break the link between where children live and where they go to school” and “interrupt the cycle of poverty by providing low-income children with access to high-quality educational options that will boost their chances of long-term success.” 

Yet the odds are long that NJ will pass legislation described in this paper from Rutgers’ Journal of Law and Public Policy as “an attempt to shake up the status quo in New Jersey’s poorest districts by allowing low-income parents to choose a school that best fits their child’s needs.” Why the long odds? Because NJEA leaders are virulently opposed to parents having the autonomy to choose the best school for their children.

Two examples: In 2012, the last time NJ legislators tried to pass a scaled-down version of the Opportunity Scholarship Act, NJEA Executive Director Vincent Giordano contended that while “poor parents should have access to the same options as those who can afford to send their children to high-performing schools,” “life’s not always fair and I’m sorry about that.” (Then-Governor Chris Christie responded, “As Vince drives out of the palace on State Street in his big luxury car and his $500,000 salary. I’m sure life’s really fair for him, and if Vince’s kids were in a failing school district he could afford to send them to any school in New Jersey that could help them succeed.”)

And, five years later, NJEA spent $57,000 of members’ dues to beat down a voucher bill in Atlantic City that was actually sponsored by an NJEA member, City Councilman Jesse Kurtz. Kurtz’s entire budget was somewhere between $2,000 and $3,000.

As low-income students fall further and further behind during remote instruction (in NJ, one of the wealthiest states in the country, 40,000 students are still without wifi and/or a laptop), isn’t it time to privilege Tasha and Kayla over lobbyists desperate to protect their market share?

For me, a former voucher opponent, the answer couldn’t be more clear. All I have to do is think of Derrell.

What do you think?