Political Scientist Ursula Hackett’s new book, America's Voucher Politics: How Elites Learned to Hide the State (Cambridge UP, 2020), is the winner of the APSA 2021 Education Policy and Politics Section Best Book Award. America’s Voucher Politics examines the way that the approach to vouchers, as a policy design and as a point of advocacy, has evolved over the past decades, and, in the process, this policy area has shifted strategic losses into strategic and growing wins. School vouchers, essentially the central case study in Hackett’s book, are a perfect example of what Hackett describes as “attenuated governance.” Attenuated governance is the form that a particular policy design and often the associated rhetoric with that policy take in an effort to disconnect the policy itself from the state, so as to avoid or elide constitutional conflicts that may strike down the policy that was passed by state or national legislative bodies. Attenuated governance is the umbrella concept that includes both the attenuated delivery of the goods or services and the rhetoric to accompany the policy design and delivery. As Hackett notes, school vouchers are the perfect lens for this exploration of American political development and examining the shifting approaches that courts and judges have taken to how the policies work within public and private institutions.
As the subtitle of the book indicates, the story of school vouchers is the tale of hiding the role of the state in shifting funds from public schools to private and parochial schools and doing so in such a way so that the courts would decide in favor of the constitutionality of these new policy designs. Many of the initial attempts at this form of attenuated governance were unsuccessfully made in the 1950s and 1960s in response to the Brown v. Board of Education decision and other moves to desegregate schools, and other public entities and spaces. But these early failures in court provided the blueprint for subsequent successes, not just in designing policy that would be more attenuated or disconnected from the state itself, but also in the way that these policies were publicly discussed and argued. America’s Voucher Politics is a fascinating study not only of this particular policy area as it developed over the past 70 years, but also of this concept of attenuated governance, which builds on America’s foundational identity struggles around religion, race and racism, and civic institutions.
Lilly J. Goren is professor of political science at Carroll University in Waukesha, WI. She is co-editor of the award winning book, Women and the White House: Gender, Popular Culture, and Presidential Politics (University Press of Kentucky, 2012), as well as co-editor of Mad Men and Politics: Nostalgia and the Remaking of Modern America (Bloomsbury Academic, 2015). Email her comments at email@example.com or tweet to @gorenlj.
Lilly J. Goren is professor of political science at Carroll University in Waukesha, WI.