Is this euphemism really necessary?

Monday, Jan. 23
January 23, 2012
Kate Cleo Cherry Ivey
January 26, 2012
Monday, Jan. 23
January 23, 2012
Kate Cleo Cherry Ivey
January 26, 2012

Want to legalize gambling? Call it gaming.

Think a tax needs to be increased? Call it a revenue enhancement.

Tax breaks for the wealthy? You mean tax breaks for job creators.

And if you support a plan that could provide taxpayer-funded tuition for students attending private schools, try to avoid the word “voucher,” says an online handbook for SchoolChoice Week, an organization that supports vouchers. Better you should say “opportunity scholarship.”

Steve Monaghan, president of the Louisiana Federation of Teachers and an opponent of vouchers, says such language helps sell an otherwise controversial concept.

“Everybody loves choice. Who can be against opportunity?” says Monaghan.

But it’s not just a question of salesmanship. Somewhere along the line the biggest supporters of public help for private students started treating “vouchers” like a four-letter word. In 2008, when lawmakers were considering the law that established a limited voucher system in New Orleans, supporters of the idea stopped just short of flatly asking reporters not to use the v-word.

Even now, Gov. Bobby Jindal, championing a proposal that could make vouchers available to low to moderate-income families statewide, can speak at length on the subject without using the word.

Brigitte Nieland, a voucher supporter who lobbies on education issues for the Louisiana Association of Business and Industry, says it’s because voucher opponents have managed to demonize voucher supporters.

“It’s become the educational boogieman,” she said last week in an interview.

“It is what has become the emblematic, flag-bearing word for all the educational bureaucracy to accuse everyone in favor of vouchers of trying to destroy traditional public education, trying to privatize all education.”

Decades-old debates over voucher programs are revving up again as Jindal pushes a broad set of education proposals. Those include making it harder for teachers to earn tenure and easier for them to lose it, diminishing the role of seniority in teacher assignments and smoothing the path for organizations that want to operate public charter schools that are run independently of local school boards.

Actual bills haven’t been released yet but Jindal has made it clear he would like to expand the voucher program now operating in New Orleans into a statewide program. It would allow students from low to moderate-income families who would otherwise have to attend a low-performing public school to instead attend a private school with taxpayer-funded vouchers.

There are substantive issues to be argued: Will the program divert so much money to private schools that public schools will suffer? Will the private schools be held to sufficient accountability standards? Should they be if they can do the job in a manner that satisfies parents? Should they not be, if they are taking government money? Will the threat of losing students to private schools turn out to be incentive for public schools to work harder?

And there will be the semantic ones. Monaghan says the voucher backers, by adopting the term “opportunity scholarship,” are putting a new spin on what most people think the word “scholarship” means, making more palatable the idea of what some might see as a government giveaway.

Nieland agrees that words affect the way people think about the issue, adding her view that school vouchers have gotten a bad rap.

“If you say scholarship it doesn’t seem bad. If you say G.I. Bill it sounds good. But they’re all vouchers,” she said.

Voucher supporters have had limited success in Louisiana. But, that probably has less to do with the name than with the political backgrounds and philosophies of legislators. In the past n both in the Legislature and on the state education board n lawmakers and policy makers who are usually thought of as conservative have broken with Jindal on education matters.

While there are no guarantees that vouchers will be expanded this year, supporters of the idea, regardless of what they call the concept, seem to have some political momentum, judging from Jindal’s sustained popularity and the success of candidates he backed in last fall’s education board races.

Whatever happens, “school voucher” is here to stay. It may be little or no more precise than “opportunity scholarship,” but it has become the common shorthand for government-aided private school tuition n and a common way to search for stories on the topic in the Internet age.

Against that backdrop, Nieland joked last week that she may be ready to reconsider her arms-length relationship with the word.

“It’s just very inflammatory,” she said. “But, I’m telling you, I’m going to reclaim the V-word.”

EDITOR’S NOTE: Kevin McGill covers education issues for The Associated Press