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Chapter 1 explains why policymakers have an incentive to engage in attenuation by situating the politics of the hidden state within America’s three foundational identity struggles: age-old, divisive, and recurrent contestation over race, religion, and civic institutions. The racial struggle pits a white supremacist order against a racial egalitarian order. Secularists and accommodationist orders comprise the religious struggle. The public–private struggle is the clash between communitarian and individualist orders. Elites use attenuated governance to pursue their policy goals amid intensive contestation when more visible programs would be struck down as unconstitutional. Sometimes these programs are also electorally unpopular, but policymakers’ chief fear is a legal one – that opposition groups will mobilize, and hostile judges will strike their programs down.
In America’s public–private struggle, communitarians and individualists contest the appropriate relationship between states and markets. This chapter explains how teacher unions and school administrator associations rose to prominence in the middle of the twentieth century, empowering a communitarian order that supported public schools as civic institutions and bastions of community values. Individualist groups became more adept at countering union opposition during the latter half of the century, although they still faced the politically dangerous charge that they were intent upon undermining public schools. Hence, as the individualist order grew in strength, it utilized attenuated policy forms to disguise the diversion of public dollars from public institutions. The communitarian critique of vouchers – that they transfer money from public to private schools – helps explain the surprising absence of voucher programs in conservative states controlled by Republican administrations, such as Texas, Michigan, and Missouri. There, “strange bedfellow” alliances of Democrats and rural Republican legislators prevent these state legislatures from passing voucher legislation, because public school interests play an outsized role in rural districts.
Legal maneuvers can help explain the rapid recent growth of privatized forms of governance, such as voucher schemes and tax expenditures. Although privatization seems to exacerbate principal-agent problems and reduce credit-claiming opportunities, attenuating the relationship between the state and the controversial policy outputs can be politically expedient for policymakers fearing legal losses, because it helps defend such policies in court. This chapter introduces readers to the concept of attenuation: the process by which policymakers in local, state, or federal government hide the state’s role in promoting a particular policy output. Anticipating constitutional challenge, elites use strategic policy design and rhetoric to advance their policy goals.
I conclude that the hidden state grows because elites find it useful, strategically, to attenuate their policy designs and communications when their side in America’s foundational struggles is temporarily dethroned by rival ideas and institutions. Policymakers face strategic decisions about the combination of policy design and presentation most conducive to passing and sustaining their policy reforms, decisions with consequences for the shape and scope of the state. By choosing attenuated governance – publicly distancing government from politically contentious purposes – those elites commodify public services and complicate lines of democratic accountability. Understanding the origins, operation, and effects of attenuated governance helps illuminate the contours of state development and the strategies policymakers adopt to deal with its tensions and contradictions.
Chapter 2 demonstrates that disaggregating the hidden state into underlying dimensions is theoretically valuable. The rhetorical and policy design dimensions are analytically separable. They occur in different spheres of political activity: policymaker communications and policy design. Combining these two dimensions produces different sorts of politics, with implications for the survival and growth of attenuated policies. I term these phenomena “two dimensions of attenuated governance.” Vouchers – policies which deliver public money to individuals for the purchase of services in private markets that would otherwise be provided by the government direct – are a source of empirical observations of attenuated governance.
In America’s racial struggle, as racial egalitarian forces won new commitments from the federal government and judiciary during the Civil Rights Era, white supremacists found that they could not pursue their aims directly because they were liable to be struck down as unconstitutional. In an effort to protect a rigid racial hierarchy, southern states turned to tuition grant vouchers. These programs provided public money to individual parents to spend exclusively at private segregated academies. Instead of funding segregation directly, white supremacists funded it indirectly – through the intervention of parents and of “private,” arms-length financial assistance commissions whose job it was to administer the voucher payments on behalf of the legislature. But a change in legislative means reflected no change in ends. Despite their popularity among white parents, the contested-attenuated nature of segregationist tuition grants made them vulnerable to legal challenge as the Jim Crow system disintegrated. Remarking upon white supremacists’ inability to conceal their racist purposes, judges struck the programs down as unconstitutional. In their modern incarnations, vouchers are color-blind but have never fully shaken off the racial connotations of their segregationist forebears.
Yet decades into the twenty-first century, the secularist, communitarian, and race-conscious orders’ hold upon America’s judicial institutions now appears increasingly shaky. Growing partisan alignment within America’s foundational struggles binds the fate of these orders closer to the fortunes of the Democratic Party. Republican Party power lends strength to individualist, accommodationist, and color-blind forces. Policy goals that were once likely to receive an unsympathetic hearing – whether white nativism, religious accommodation, or program privatization – are elevated by the Trump presidency. Hence, there is less need for individualists, accommodationists, and color-blind orders to attenuate the connection between the central government and these policy goals. They can pursue them openly. The passage, growth, and legal durability of doubly distanced tax credit scholarships since 2010 have given legal cover for policymakers and advocates to experiment with new forms of voucher program: education savings accounts (ESAs). ESAs are typically less attenuated in policy delivery than tax credit scholarships.
The sluggish growth of vouchers into the first decade of the twenty-first century prompted voucher supporters to reevaluate their strategy. Ballot initiatives proved fruitless, so supporters switched to state legislatures and sought to distance the state from private schools by funding vouchers through tax credits rather than direct appropriation. The full fruits of attenuated governance matured with Republican victories during Barack Obama’s presidency. This chapter shows that the doubly distanced tax credit form enabled individualist and accommodationist forces to divert public funds to private religious institutions without appearing to do so. Due to the lingering importance of communitarian public schooling and secularist approaches to church–state relations among the nation’s many judges, doubly distanced policies were safest. Statistical analysis demonstrates that they were, and are, least likely to be challenged in court or struck down as unconstitutional. Attenuation is a powerful strategy for rival forces in America’s foundational struggles because it enables policymakers to achieve their goals obliquely. The link between state and legally controversial policy outputs is plausibly deniable in crucial venues of policy contestation, provided that elites follow the attenuation strategy consistently.
Secularist forces in America’s religious struggle believe that church and state should be separated as completely as possible, while their accommodationist opponents believe the state should encourage religious activity. As the accommodationist order in America’s religious struggle gave way to secularist forces during the period of church–state activism by the Warren and Burger Courts (1953–86) on issues such as school prayer, evolution, and religious exemptions, accommodationists sought refuge in weakly attenuated voucher programs. This chapter shows how accommodationists came to rely upon a child benefit theory defense in court that emphasized the benefits to the child, rather than to the school. Accommodationists saw the rise of judicial secularism as a threat to their interests. Indirect benefits channeled through parents seemed to help insulate the state from secularist opposition. But most quasi-direct vouchers of the latter half of the twentieth century were struck down as unconstitutional because they entangled the state with religious purposes.
What explains the explosive growth of school vouchers in the last two decades? In America's Voucher Politics, Ursula Hackett shows that the voucher movement is rooted in America's foundational struggles over religion, race, and the role of government versus the private sector. Drawing upon original datasets, archival materials, and more than one hundred interviews, Hackett shows that policymakers and political advocates use strategic policy design and rhetoric to hide the role of the state when their policy goals become legally controversial. For over sixty years of voucher litigation, white supremacists, accommodationists, and individualists have deployed this strategy of attenuated governance in court. By learning from previous mistakes and anticipating downstream effects, policymakers can avoid painful defeats, gain a secure legal footing, and entrench their policy commitments despite the surging power of rivals. An ideal case study, education policy reflects multiple axes of conflict in American politics and demonstrates how policy learning unfolds over time.