Are School Vouchers the Answer?
Gary Rosen misrepresents many sincere opponents of taxpayer-funded vouchers for private and religious schools when he accuses “liberal and Democratic standard-bearers” of continuing to “stonewall” for the status quo in public education [“Are School Vouchers Un-American?,” February].
The National Education Association opposes vouchers for many reasons, but blind defense of the status quo is not among them. The status quo in too many urban public schools is both indefensible and unacceptable. Like voucher proponents, we want every student in struggling schools to receive the best education possible. Where we part company is over how to achieve that goal. This much we do know: an overwhelming majority of Americans prefer to invest their tax dollars in improving our public schools—not in unproven voucher programs.
Rather than reversing what Mr. Rosen calls “the cruel process of marginalization” among poor, mostly minority students, vouchers are more likely to have the opposite effect. Consider New Zealand’s decision to bring “choice” to its 2,700 public schools. When schools there have more applicants than seats, they are entitled to develop “enrollment schemes” to help them select students. As a result, the country’s best schools—not necessarily its parents—are doing all the choosing, and disadvantaged students are increasingly concentrated in low-ranked institutions.
There is nothing in the nature of private and religious schools in the U.S. to suggest a different outcome if vouchers were to become a “full-scale public policy” here, as Mr. Rosen plainly hopes. Catholic schools, which comprise a large majority of voucher schools in Milwaukee and Cleveland, already reject two-thirds of their applicants. Exclusive private schools reject nine out of every ten.
Indeed, why would we expect our free-market system—which by definition must have “winners” and “losers”—to resolve the inherent inequities in our most troubled inner-city public schools? I do not want any “losers,” and the fact is that vouchers will not improve education for the vast majority of students, who would not receive them.
If the potential social cost of vouchers seems obvious, the economic cost is already documented. Milwaukee, which now spends nearly $40 million on 8,000 voucher students, avoided deep cuts in its public-school budget only by raising property taxes as an offset. In addition, when voucher students leave a classroom, taking their per-pupil state aid with them, the school’s fixed costs remain the same; the teacher and the electricity bill still must be paid.
Imagine, then, the consequences of a “full-scale public policy” that would give a $2,000 voucher to any American family, regardless of income. The first takers, before a single public-school student received any help, would be the families of the seven million students already attending private and religious schools. Failing passage of a national “voucher tax,” this $14 billion—for students who have never set foot in a public school—would come from public-school budgets.
The primary question we should be asking is this: are vouchers the best educational investment we can make with admittedly scarce resources? Official studies (as opposed to those conducted by self-acknowledged provoucher researcher Paul Peterson and cited by Mr. Rosen) are at best inconclusive regarding student achievement in voucher programs.
But consider Wisconsin’s four-year-old Student Achievement Guarantee in Education (SAGE) program—now in 78 schools, many of them in Milwaukee. It currently targets students in kindergarten to third grade at an average additional per-pupil cost of approximately $1,300. SAGE features smaller classes, a rigorous curriculum, before-and after-school programs, and high-level professional development and accountability for teachers—in short, the very things that characterize successful schools everywhere.
The most recent evaluation of the program found that students in first and third grades scored higher in language arts and math than their public-school counterparts. More importantly perhaps, African-American SAGE students—many of them the same students targeted by voucher programs—made significantly larger gains than students in a comparison group, closing the achievement gap between themselves and white students. Instead of spending $40 million on 8,000 Milwaukee voucher students, why not spend the same $40 million on 30,000 SAGE students?
Vouchers are not the answer to improving public schools. As to whether they are “un-American,” I would like to think that a genuine commitment to giving all children—regardless of zip code—safe, modern classrooms, small classes, talented teachers, and adequate educational resources is about as “American” as it gets.
National Education Association
In a striking example of how ideological and degraded the debate over vouchers has become, Gary Rosen assigns to himself and other voucher advocates an exclusive, overriding concern for the educational interests of poor children—yet never discusses either education or poverty. I happen to know a lot about both, personally and professionally.
I am not ideological about vouchers. If I thought they would improve poor children’s education, I would be for them. But when all the smoke is cleared in the voucher wars, the case for vouchers is just not there.
I fail to see how poor children are served by distorting data to suggest that all their public schools are failures. Over the past 30 years, we have halved the performance gap between black and white students, and in the last five years alone, we have raised the achievement of our poorest children by a grade level. I also cannot see how poor children are served by using unverifiable anecdotes to claim that virtually all the nonpublic schools they attend are successful, including ones that, Mr. Rosen admits, “promote disquietingly false ideas.” The evidence is clear that public and private school achievement is comparable when student background is taken into account.
Why make the issue public versus private schools when both sectors face special challenges in educating disadvantaged children? And how can we believe Mr. Rosen’s assurance that voucher ideologues are really out to improve, rather than defund, poor children’s underfunded schools when he scurrilously asserts that “unionized public-school” teachers are not “profoundly committed to their disadvantaged students” because their substandard salaries are above the even lousier wages of private-school teachers (who mostly do not have to be certified and are increasingly unionized)? I certainly doubt poor children will get their fair share of qualified teachers if we make vows of poverty the test of teacher quality.
But let us pretend for a moment that Mr. Rosen is correct in claiming that the voucher experiments in Cleveland and Milwaukee are raising voucher students’ achievement relative to their public-school peers, even though every independent evaluation has said otherwise. You then have to ask, vouchers for poor children as compared to what? Princeton’s Cecilia Rouse provided one answer when she re-analyzed all the Milwaukee voucher research, favorable and otherwise, and compared the results to the achievement of low-income Milwaukee public-school students in a program emphasizing small class size. Small class size trumped vouchers. Similarly, “Success for All,” a reading program operating in hundreds of the poorest public schools at a fraction of the cost of vouchers, trumps achievement gains claimed for vouchers by a factor of seven to one.
I repeat: the issue is improving poor children’s education. So instead of conducting yet another failed voucher experiment, I propose we do something unprecedented in America by providing educational adequacy for poor children. Not “throwing money” at badly managed schools, but specifically funding what specifically works, and thereby assuring poor children the same basics that are almost a birthright for other children: high-quality, early-childhood education; small class size; and a rich curriculum taught by fully qualified teachers, which means making teacher standards, salaries, and professional conditions in poor districts comparable to those of advantaged communities.
And to those who say that this will take too long but that vouchers will help a parent whose child is trapped in a failing public school today, I have a counterproposal. First, allow parents whose children attend failing schools to transfer them to an achieving public school. Second, close down failing public schools at semester’s end, redesign them over the summer using proven programs, reopen them in the fall, and provide immediate extra supports to any child who is behind or in danger of falling behind.
Is this hard to do? Yes. But it is being done, and the American Federation of Teachers is helping to do it, and we need more help to make it the norm. Unlike vouchers, the evidence shows that our approach works. It also does not produce greater social stratification, or breach the wall of separation between church and state, or force taxpayers to support religions to which they do not subscribe, or fund nonpublic schools that are unaccountable to the public.
And, yes, I would say that ensuring educational adequacy for poor children—who would disproportionately depend on public schools even under a voucher system—is decidedly less “un-American,” “reactionary,” and morally indifferent than handing off our social responsibilities to the untender mercies of an educational market.
American Federation of Teachers
Ralph G. Neas:
For several years now, people like Gary Rosen have been trying to sell Americans on the idea of publicly funded vouchers for private and religious schools. But what we now know about vouchers should give all of us pause. For one thing, they cost more and benefit fewer children than proven education reforms, like programs that reduce class size or focus on developing reading skills. Vouchers also have the effect of further impoverishing needy schools. In Cleveland, the $11.2 million cost of vouchers last year was deducted from state funds that could otherwise have gone to help disadvantaged kids throughout the city’s public schools. The program’s 41-percent cost overrun in its second year was made up from funds earmarked for public schools.
We have also seen scandalous abuses with vouchers. Investigative journalists for the Cleveland Plain Dealer profiled a voucher school with peeling lead paint and no fire alarms or sprinkler system, where two-thirds of the teachers were not licensed and one was a convicted murderer. Another voucher school based its entire instructional program on videotapes. In one of the unfortunately named “Hope Academies,” a local television station discovered that children were disciplined by being forced to wear paper bags over their heads, with their hands bound behind their backs with tape.
The good news is that these abuses were uncovered and stopped. The bad news is that the comparative secrecy in which private schools operate allowed them in the first place. Accountability and oversight of schools that receive public money is not just unnecessary bureaucratic red tape, as many voucher supporters would have us believe.
The educational record of voucher schools is mixed at best, as independent research has repeatedly shown. In Milwaukee and Cleveland—the only two voucher programs that have operated long enough for measurements to mean anything—independent state-sponsored evaluations did not bear out voucher proponents’ claims that students would do much better. In fact, some did much worse. Wisconsin has now simply stopped testing voucher students, so how they are doing is anybody’s guess, a fact reflected in the latest state audit.
In addition, it only takes reading the mission statements of a few of the religious schools now receiving vouchers to understand why these programs pose an irreconcilable constitutional problem. Virtually without exception, these schools describe their goal as instilling in children the tenets of their faith. Though this goal is entirely appropriate for a private religious school, it is entirely inappropriate for government to support this goal with taxpayer dollars.
People For the
American Way Foundation
Steven R. Shapiro:
Gary Rosen’s essay in support of school vouchers understates their constitutional flaws. There is considerable doubt that the Supreme Court will ever uphold an educational program that transfers millions of dollars in taxpayer money to pervasively sectarian schools that regard religious indoctrination as part of their primary mission.
Significantly, Mr. Rosen fails to mention the Supreme Court’s decision in PEARL v. Nyquist (1973), which struck down a New York State law providing tuition grants to private-school students in an early precursor to current voucher plans. Now, as then, the vast majority of voucher recipients used their vouchers to attend parochial schools. The explanation for this is simple: most private education in this country remains affiliated with religious institutions, and the typical voucher is insufficient to pay the tuition at many nonsectarian private schools, whose budgets are not subsidized by religious orders.
Mr. Rosen argues that the Supreme Court has recently become more sympathetic to government funding of religious institutions in some circumstances. But each of the cases that he cites involved general-benefit government programs in which the aid to religion was both incidental and minor. It is one thing to say, as the Supreme Court did in 1993, that the relative handful of deaf children who attend parochial schools should not be denied a sign-language interpreter at state expense merely because their parents chose a religious education. It is quite another thing to say that the state should use taxpayer dollars to subsidize the religious education of thousands of children.
The fact that the decision to attend parochial school is made by the parents rather than by the state does not solve the constitutional problem, as Mr. Rosen suggests. If it did, then the state could simply fund parochial schools on the same basis that it now funds public schools without even going through the charade of first sending a voucher to the parents. A Supreme Court opinion endorsing that result would require more than a shift in church-state law; it would require a revolution.
National Legal Director
American Civil Liberties Union
New York City
Michael W. Apple:
Gary Rosen presents vouchers simply as a tool to improve the lives of inner-city students, but many, if not most, voucher supporters have a much more ambitious agenda. In Wisconsin, Polly Williams—a Democratic, African-American state legislator—joined the state’s Republican governor a decade ago in crafting a voucher plan limited to poor children in Milwaukee’s inner-city schools. Yet, once the Wisconsin Supreme Court ruled that the program was constitutional, its conservative supporters began calling for its expansion to include all parents who wished to pull their children out of public schools, even those who are affluent. Though still a supporter of vouchers targeted to low-income families, Williams has attacked her erstwhile allies, accusing them of not having the interests of her constituents at heart.
Moreover, though Mr. Rosen claims that vouchers do not cause added hardship for public schools, an extensive body of international research on the use of competitive markets in education leads to exactly the opposite conclusion. In such settings, teachers and administrators spend much more time on maintaining the image of a “good” school than on curricular substance. Since it is comparative test scores that determine whether a school is “good” or “bad,” children who perform well on such reductive tests are welcome, but those who do not are often discouraged or marginalized.
Much of the literature in support of vouchers assumes that unprepared teachers and overly bureaucratic schools are the root cause of the supposed decline in education. But this ignores the larger structural realities of our inner cities. It is simply not possible to understand what has happened in education unless we honestly link schooling to the growth of poverty. One of the most consistent research findings over the past decades has been that income inequality and other social and economic factors—not type of school—have the most power in determining success in schools.
Despite this unfortunate relationship between education and economic inequality, there are things that can be done and have been proven to work. But effective schooling does not mean turning our schools over to the market.
Vouchers are part of a larger and quite aggressive ideological movement to change how we think about society and our participation in it. This effort by conservatives aims to change the very meaning of citizenship, defining it simply as consumer choice and moving away from the collective building and rebuilding of our institutions. I somehow doubt that this reduction of democracy to selfish individualism is what we as a society want.
School of Education
University of Wisconsin
Yale M. Zussman:
Gary Rosen claims that students who use vouchers are indistinguishable from their peers in the public schools, but this is simply not true. They differ in that all of them have parents who are interested enough in education to make the sacrifices necessary to send their children to private schools.
As a teacher, I can report that there are many children in public schools, especially in urban districts, whose parents do not care about education. This attitude has a significant impact on behavior and achievement in the classroom. Such students are more likely to disrupt classes, and it only takes two or three of them to degrade an entire classroom environment. What are we to expect if something like half of a school’s student body comes from such a background?
Vouchers could leave the public schools with an even higher percentage of unmotivated students and indifferent parents. If this happens, support for public education will evaporate, and the students left behind will be abandoned to their misery.
Gary Rosen’s otherwise balanced presentation is marred by his suggestion that declining student achievement represents a failure of the educational system. As someone who taught and counseled in New York City’s public schools for more than 30 years, I would point out that these institutions once consistently produced graduates who were the envy of the nation, and this at a time when classes were 25 percent larger than they are today.
What has changed is the attitude about standards, conduct, and learning that students bring with them to school. In this, there has been a great decline, and often with the institutional support of the academic and political establishment. After all, when organizations like the ACLU, with the complicity of the courts, make it extremely difficult to remove miscreants from the classroom, or when the City University of New York gives tuition-free admission to students with low grade-point averages, what is an impressionable adolescent to conclude?
The source of today’s educational problems is not the public schools but rather the homes where students are raised and the politically correct attitudes of the surrounding culture. Until these are dealt with, vouchers, charter schools, or any other reform will improve things marginally at best.
New York City
I enjoyed Gary Rosen’s article on vouchers, and I agree with many of his criticisms of the public schools and the teachers’ unions. He failed, however, to address several serious issues.
First, there are fiscal problems with vouchers. When money is sent to the government as a tax payment and then returned to a private citizen, funds are wasted in transactional costs. Funds will also be wasted by the bureaucracy administering vouchers.
In addition, it has been my experience that, when religious bodies establish a significant presence in a community and become politically involved, they are often able to win a reduction in the local tax burden by arguing that their own schools relieve government of the burden of educating many children. This argument will be undermined by vouchers.
On a different matter, Mr. Rosen’s contention that “the most extreme [groups] are unlikely to tolerate the regulations that come along with vouchers, not least the almost universal requirement that schools accept any student interested in attending” is probably wrong. Many extreme groups, like Farrakhan’s Nation of Islam, may actually fear such regulations less because few parents would be foolish enough to send young, impressionable children with a different background to their schools. Moreover, if these groups were denied vouchers, they would simply scream “discrimination,” welcoming the publicity from a legal fight with the government.
There could be other legal battles as well. If the schools receiving vouchers are seen as promoting “racism” or “homophobia,” the courts may be asked to deny them public funds. A successful legal challenge could lead to government censors reviewing private-school textbooks and classes.
All things considered, I would suggest that conservatives are undermining their own interests by supporting vouchers.
Brooklyn, New York
Gary Rosen’s well-written essay makes the liberal position on school vouchers understandable in an even-handed way and then unravels it very convincingly and forcefully. He succeeds admirably in exposing the educational establishment’s underlying motives of power and control.
The glaring delinquency of Mr. Rosen’s otherwise excellent work is his omission of conservative arguments against school vouchers. He must be aware that, as certainly as night follows day, government control follows government money. What educational freedom does he expect in schools that have become dependent on state funds? Has he forgotten about our private colleges and universities, where entitlement to government funds has led to the regulation of curricula, sports, housing, admissions, student associations, and even faculty selection and training?
The greatest lesson that we can learn from the past 50 years is that government help always comes with strings attached.
Steven E. Plaut:
In Gary Rosen’s otherwise sensible endorsement of vouchers, he needlessly agonizes over “accountability.” Schools chosen by parents using vouchers are accountable not because of government regulators and inspectors who “protect” the consumer. Rather, they are accountable because, under competition, consumers take their money away from poor products and spend it on good products. No one thinks parents will seek out poor schools for their children.
University of Haifa
Just as Gary Rosen’s article appeared, Wisconsin’s Legislative Audit Bureau, an independent, nonpartisan state agency, issued an evaluation of the ten-year-old Milwaukee voucher program. This report, described in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel under the headline, “Audit Dispels Choice Myths,” contradicts virtually all of the claims and distortions catalogued by Mr. Rosen and relentlessly advanced by voucher opponents. The Audit Bureau concluded, among other things, that the choice program in Milwaukee had neither unfairly affected public-school finances, worsened racial segregation, nor excluded low-achieving children and those with special needs.
Evidence from elsewhere in the nation suggests that Milwaukee’s positive experience with vouchers is not an anomaly. Researchers on school choice increasingly agree:
- that the existing programs are primarily serving low-income, minority parents;
- that these parents are more satisfied with their new schools than with the public schools they left;
- that the voucher programs do not harm public schools but rather, in the words of one group of researchers, encourage “bureaucrats in the central district offices to empower their more innovative teachers and principals, creating new and often promising programs in the public schools”;
- and, finally, that voucher students have made gains on test scores that are equal to, or a little better than, those of their public-school counterparts.
For African-American parents and other parents of color, a repugnant double standard contaminates the voucher debate, embodied in the idea that parental choice is somehow a new or untested concept. It is not. The power to make educational choices is widespread, longstanding, and highly valued—by those who have it. All that is new is that a small number of low-income parents finally have won a power that middle- and upperincome parents have always taken for granted.
Institute for the
Transformation of Learning
Thank you for Gary Rosen’s perceptive article on school vouchers. It is among the most cogent analyses of the issue that I have seen, and exposes very clearly the hypocrisy and short-sightedness of many voucher foes.
The social scientists who study this issue are often labeled pro- or antivoucher from the outset. But what is remarkable is the extent to which researchers of divergent political perspectives now agree on the benefits of choice. All of them have found that parents who use vouchers to send their children to private or parochial schools are far more satisfied with their schools’ academics, discipline, safety, and teaching of values than are public-school parents. Parental satisfaction is, in itself, a major success, given that it leads to parental involvement where there was little before. In addition, with a few exceptions, the research teams have found that voucher students have done better on standardized tests than have their public-school peers.
What of those “left behind”? Mr. Rosen effectively rebuts the argument that vouchers have skimmed the “cream” from public classrooms. To the contrary, the experiments in choice are serving the disadvantaged clientele they were designed to serve.
This is not enough for some voucher foes. They argue, in effect, that all poor children should be held hostage in order to force a magical transformation of urban public education, a transformation that years of governmental crash programs have yet to produce. Letting a fortunate few captives escape, they suggest, somehow worsens matters for the rest.
The good news is that vouchers are helping public-school students, too. When philanthropist Virginia Gilder offered private scholarships to all the students of the worst-performing public elementary school in Albany, New York, school officials, as Mr. Rosen reports, suddenly felt the need to reform that school top to bottom. Students there are now benefiting from a “Success for All” reading curriculum that was instituted because of the competition. Similar responses to the voucher challenge have come from public schools in San Antonio, Milwaukee, Pensacola, and elsewhere.
Voucher foes ought to open their hearts and minds to what is happening in these places. As Gary Rosen brings to light, the school-choice movement ultimately embodies the best egalitarian instincts of the nation.
Jay P. Greene:
Gary Rosen’s observation that “Voucher programs are succeeding . . . from the perspective of the families taking part in them” is simply stating what is now the consensus among the researchers who study school choice. The publicly funded choice programs in Milwaukee and Cleveland and the privately funded ones in New York City, Washington, D.C., and Dayton have received, among them, eight evaluations from four different groups of researchers. Every one of these evaluations has found positive effects to some degree, and all the evaluators support the continuation, if not the expansion, of the choice programs.
In Milwaukee, one evaluation—conducted by Paul Peterson of Harvard, along with Jiangtao Du and myself—compared winners and losers in the lottery to assign vouchers and found that voucher recipients benefited by six points in reading and eleven points in math after four years of participation in the program. Cecilia Rouse of Princeton also analyzed this data. She found that voucher students outperformed students in the comparison group by 1.5 to 2.3 percentile points a year in math, though she did not find significant benefits in reading.
Using a different (and, to my mind, inferior) comparison group, John Witte of the University of Wisconsin, the third evaluator, found that vouchers in Milwaukee neither substantially improved nor harmed student test scores. Nonetheless, Witte has endorsed the Milwaukee effort. “If programs are devised correctly,” he writes, “they can provide meaningful educational choices to families that now do not have such choices. And it is not trivial that most people in America . . . already have such choices.”
In Cleveland, Kim Metcalf of Indiana University concluded that voucher students had “significantly higher test scores than public-school students in language (45.0 versus 40.0) and science (40.0 versus 36.0).” Paul Peterson and I, along with William Howell of Stanford, analyzed a different group of scores from Cleveland and found that after two years, choice students may have benefited by as much as eight points in reading and sixteen points in math.
As for the privately funded voucher programs, Peterson and Howell, along with Patrick Wolf of Georgetown, conducted independent evaluations in all three cities and found that choice students had benefited significantly. In New York, they had gained between two and six points in math and reading, depending on grade level. In Washington, D.C., African-American students in the second through the fifth grade had gained seven points in reading (though at the same time students in the sixth through the eighth grade lost eight points in math). In Dayton, African-American students gained seven points in math. All of these benefits—and one loss for one age cohort in one city—occurred after just one year, a very short time to expect results.
The teachers’ unions and their allies will repeat as often and as loudly as they can the falsehood that no reputable study of voucher programs shows that choice works. Luckily, the facts speak even more loudly and insistently.
New York City
John E. Coons:
I share Gary Rosen’s well-tempered views and wish to offer a complementary observation.
Among the critics of school vouchers, one goal is salient: the transmission of democratic values. For this, the poor are said to be unreliable decision-makers. They must, therefore, submit to the public-school system in the name of a more general respect for law and civic virtue.
But, in fact, school choice honors this same objective, and it is precisely in the quest for civic community that vouchers might be most effective. Consider the rather ordinary example of Kansas City, where the federal court, for want of white students, was unable to effect desegregation in the public-school system.
The black plaintiffs in the case secured an offer of 4,000 racially integrated places from 50 local private schools, the admission of students to be determined by lottery. To fund this effort, they asked the court to order the Kansas City public-school system to issue vouchers covering tuitions averaging one-third of the district’s own per-pupil costs. Siding with the ACLU, the teachers’ union, and the school board, the judge refused to vindicate the plaintiffs’ right to “equal protection” under the 14th Amendment.
This outcome hardly encourages responsibility among disadvantaged minorities, who need to experience concrete expressions of social trust. When these families are offered substantial autonomy they will have reason to reciprocate, assimilating civic virtue to the extent that America respects their own culture and values.
School of Law (Boalt Hall)
University of California
These cannot be easy days for Bob Chase and Sandra Feldman, or for the teachers’ unions they lead. All across the country, education reformers are gaining ground, instituting policies and programs against which the NEA and AFT have long fought. Standardized testing is on the rise, with parents and politicians increasingly determined to hold schools accountable for the results. Localities are experimenting with merit pay, simpler certification requirements, and restrictions on seniority privileges in an effort to attract more and better teachers. And public-school systems in general are turning to a number of non-union arrangements, from charter schools to for-profit education companies, to bolster student performance and give families more options.
But for all the energy that the teachers’ unions have expended—and continue to expend—on resisting these salutary changes, no proposed reform has drawn their vehement and organized opposition in quite the same way that vouchers have. This is not just for the obvious reason that vouchers directly threaten the livelihood of many of the public-school teachers whom the NEA and AFT represent. More fundamentally, it is because vouchers deeply embarrass the unions, shining an unrelenting spotlight on their self-serving claim to speak for the educational interests of the most disadvantaged students.
The parents of these students, it turns out, are wildly enthusiastic about vouchers, and rightly see them as the only real chance their children have to escape from failing inner-city public schools. As I reported in my article, overwhelming majorities of urban blacks and Latinos now endorse vouchers. Indeed, every school-choice program to date, public or private, has drawn far more applicants than it can begin to accept, the most impressive case in this regard being the 1.25 million children, all from low-income households, who applied last year for the 40,000 stipends offered by the privately run Children’s Scholarship Fund.
Explaining why this large and growing interest in vouchers should not be accommodated is a delicate task, not least because of the exceedingly sympathetic character of the parents and students clamoring for more educational options. Still, the teachers’ unions and their staunchest allies—nicely represented here by Ralph G. Neas of People for the American Way, Steven R. Shapiro of the ACLU, and Michael W. Apple of the education school at the University of Wisconsin—have come up with two basic strategies, both of them on full display in their letters.
The first strategy—and the one on which I concentrated in my article—is to describe in indignant detail the various social and political horrors that supposedly await us should the use of publicly funded vouchers for inner-city children become more widespread. Unfortunately, this can be achieved only by resorting to a slew of evasions, misrepresentations, and outright falsehoods.
There is, to begin with, the question of finances. Bob Chase wonders how anyone could want to deprive Milwaukee’s public schools of the $40 million in state aid now spent on the city’s 8,000 voucher students. What he fails to explain is why a public-school system should so desperately need—or be allowed to keep—money that has been earmarked for children whom it no longer enrolls or has the expense of educating. Under a voucher program, students simply go elsewhere with some portion of the public funds that have already been designated for them. In the case of Milwaukee, this amounts to $5,000 per voucher student, far less than the approximately $9,000 that the public schools would otherwise spend. To my mind, that is a pretty good deal: better schooling for less money.
Mr. Chase is correct that certain “fixed costs” remain unchanged when just a few voucher students leave a public school. But this is an argument for expanding voucher programs, since a greater number of participants would make it easier for an affected public-school district to consolidate resources for those students who remain in the system. Needless to say, Mr. Chase and his union have unconditionally rejected every proposal to experiment with vouchers on a larger and more efficient scale, even when such proposals have included the promise of additional money for the public schools. Evidently, the NEA’s primary concern is not to safeguard funds for students but rather to preserve jobs for teachers.
Mr. Chase’s next bogeyman is the charge that, under any full-fledged voucher plan, private schools would inevitably “do all the choosing,” with the best schools taking only the most desirable students. After all, he says, just look at what happened in New Zealand! More relevant, one might think, is the actual record of the private schools now serving our most disadvantaged students, especially the Catholic schools, which, far from rejecting two-thirds of their applicants, as Mr. Chase blithely asserts, basically operate under a policy of open admissions. (I leave aside his remark about the invidious admissions policies of “exclusive” private schools, since Groton, Exeter, and the like do not usually figure prominently in the plans of inner-city parents.)
More importantly still, under the publicly funded voucher programs that now exist, the question of selectivity is moot. All of them require participating schools to accept any interested voucher student; when demand exceeds available space, enrollment is determined by lottery. One might hope that such requirements, along with the fact that every publicly funded voucher program to date has been targeted at low-income families, would be enough to allay the fears of the AFT’s Sandra Feldman, who claims to “know a lot” about education and poverty, both “personally and professionally,” and yet insists, without an iota of evidence, that vouchers will “produce greater social stratification.”
The special concern of Ralph Neas is “accountability,” and he regales us with lurid instances of the abuses that have occurred in a handful of voucher schools. It would not be difficult, however, to compile a still more outrageous catalogue of the abuses that take place every day, and on a far wider scale, in our inner-city public schools. The difference, as Steven E. Plaut suggests in his letter (and as I argued, pace Mr. Plaut, in my article), is that parents in troubled voucher schools can choose to send their children elsewhere; low-income public-school parents have no such recourse.
Then, too, there are the First Amendment issues raised by the use of vouchers at religious schools. After helpfully reminding us that such institutions actually teach religion, Steven Shapiro chides me for failing to discuss PEARL v. Nyquist, a case in which the Supreme Court struck down a program similar to today’s voucher experiments. But Nyquist was decided in the early 1970’s, in the immediate wake of the landmark decision in Lemon, and it, too, is a reflection of the relatively brief era when the Justices, as I wrote, “automatically [found] the ‘establishment’ of religion in any program that somehow benefit[ed] a sectarian institution.”
Thankfully, I pointed out, the Court has become considerably less doctrinaire on this issue over the past two decades, and in a long series of cases has shown its willingness to allow sectarian institutions to receive public dollars through various indirect means. Contrary to Mr. Shapiro, it makes all the constitutional difference in the world that vouchers, in addition to being available for both religious and secular schools, are spent by parents, based on their private decisions. This is hardly a “charade,” as he would have it, and it no doubt helps to explain why the Justices passed up an opportunity to review the Wisconsin Supreme Court’s 1998 decision upholding the constitutionality of the Milwaukee voucher program.
Finally, the foes of vouchers offer a catch-all criticism perhaps best described as (to borrow a phrase) the “vast right-wing conspiracy” interpretation of education reform. This is what Mr. Chase has in mind when he speaks darkly of the “winners” and “losers” in our free-market system and then imagines a future in which vouchers are made available not just to the poor but “to any American family, regardless of income.” Michael Apple is more explicit, condemning vouchers and their conservative supporters as agents of “a larger and quite aggressive ideological movement” bent on reducing the very idea of American citizenship to “consumer choice” and “selfish individualism.”
These dire warnings make for colorful rhetoric, but they have nothing to do with the issue at hand. On another occasion it might be worthwhile to discuss the merits of making vouchers available to somewhat better-off families (like, for instance, middle-class Jewish parents struggling to pay day-school tuition) or even of entirely “voucherizing” public support for education (as Milton Friedman has long advocated). But such proposals have never made much political headway, and are unlikely to do so anytime soon. For now and the foreseeable future, the only debate about vouchers of any practical significance concerns their value as a tool for improving the educational prospects of low-income, inner-city families, the people for whom every existing program has been designed. By pointing with alarm to the unrealistic possibility of vouchers for everyone, Messrs. Chase and Apple intend to divert us from the fact that they would give vouchers to no one, including the most disadvantaged.
If the first major strategy of voucher foes is to place school choice itself in as sinister a light as possible, the second is exemplified by the letter of Sandra Feldman. “I am not ideological about vouchers,” says the ferociously ideological head of the AFT, but the case for them “is just not there,” especially as compared with a range of other education reforms, all of which, she assures us, her union is eager to promote. For his part, Mr. Chase chimes in that the NEA, too, is prepared to challenge the “indefensible and unacceptable” “status quo” in urban public education.
The problem, of course, is that Bob Chase, Sandra Feldman, and their unions are the status quo in urban public education. If these deeply troubled school systems are to improve in any meaningful way, it will require far more than reform-minded sloganeering on the part of the powerful organizations that have long presided over them. It will require a transformation of the entire political and economic context in which inner-city schools operate.
The fact is that, for every urban public school that has done admirable work with intensive programs like SAGE or “Success for All,” there are dozens of others that have just given up on their students. And for all of Sandra Feldman’s bold talk about “closing down” or “redesigning” failing schools, this seldom if ever happens, largely because of the altogether predictable resistance of the teachers’ unions and their entrenched allies on school boards and in mayors’ offices. As things stand now, there is simply no price to be paid in most of our cities for complacently sitting atop a failed public-school system.
A voucher program dramatically alters this monopolistic situation, giving low-income parents some genuine leverage and making it much more difficult for public-school bureaucracies to ignore their needs. With vouchers, poor families who are unhappy with their children’s education can do more than squawk; they can leave. For a number of our worst-performing school systems, this threat has already proved to be a potent tonic.
In Milwaukee, which has the largest and oldest of the state-supported voucher programs, school choice has been accompanied, not coincidentally, by a series of ambitious reforms in the public schools. John Gardner, the citywide director of the school board, credits competition from vouchers for the school district’s efforts to expand early-childhood education, adopt new reading curricula, provide more before- and after-school programs, strengthen graduation requirements, and decentralize hiring and budget authority. As Gardner sees it, vouchers have supplied “a necessary stimulus and external pressure to make us do our job.” Indeed, over the last five years, Milwaukee’s public schools have posted significant gains in student performance, especially in reading and writing.
That big-city school systems in general stand to benefit greatly from such competition could be contested only by an interested party like Sandra Feldman, who accuses me of “distorting data” about public education but who herself cooks up some very dubious numbers. According to the National Assessment of Educational Progress, for instance, the yawning test-score gap between black and white students has closed not 50 percent over the last 30 years, as she crows, but just under 20 percent, and still leaves black students 3.5 times less likely to possess proficiency in reading. For the record—and to put the AFT’s self-congratulation in perspective—it is worth recalling that in our urban public schools today, most fourth graders cannot make their way through Winnie the Pooh, most eighth graders cannot make correct change, and most entering high-school students never graduate.
Needless to say, by emphasizing the usefulness of vouchers in sparking public-school reform, I do not mean to detract from the vital opportunities that they provide more directly. As Howard Fuller observes in his illuminating letter—and knows firsthand as one of the architects of Milwaukee’s program—vouchers give low-income parents a much-needed measure of the educational freedom long taken for granted by wealthier families. That this freedom has served them well, in terms of both student performance and parental satisfaction, is demonstrated by the substantial body of research that Mr. Fuller, Robert Holland, and Jay P. Greene capably summarize—research whose conclusions, incidentally, are every bit as robust as those supporting smaller class size, a reform whose warm embrace by the teachers’ unions may have something to do with the fact that it would entail the hiring of thousands of new union teachers. My thanks, too, to John E. Coons for describing how vouchers can bolster both racial integration and the civic commitments of inner-city families.
Finally, I would say to Yale M. Zussman and Frederic Wile that I do appreciate the formidable cultural obstacles that stand in the way of improving urban education, and to Todd Kadish and Bill Tanksley that I entertain no illusions about the risks involved in voucher programs, especially for the private schools that agree to participate in them. Still, I see no real alternative for inducing wide-scale change in how children are educated in our inner cities. Whatever their drawbacks or limitations, this much is certain about vouchers: they create a constructive and far-reaching dynamic in urban schooling, pushing the issue of reform to the forefront not only for parents and students but also, as the letters above suggest, for the increasingly defensive and heretofore unaccountable representatives of the educational status quo.