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April 1, 2002
Vol. 59
No. 7

The False Promise of Vouchers

School vouchers do not raise student achievement, create equalopportunities for disadvantaged students, or provide adequateaccountability. Instead of investing scarce resources in voucherprograms, we can and must improve struggling public schools.

The book of Exodus tells the story of the Israelites who, losinghope as they waited for Moses to return from the mountaintop, beganto worship the golden calf. For African Americans, this story providesan important context for one of our greatest challenges—theeducation of our children.
Too many African Americans live in communities where public schoolshave been struggling for a long time. Like the Israelites waiting forMoses's return, they fear that they have been abandoned. Now theyare being asked to turn their backs on public schools and replace themwith a golden calf called vouchers.
So far, the nationwide voucher movement has had little success.Voucher programs and tuition tax credit programs have been defeatedin many states, including Maryland, California, Colorado, Washington,and Michigan (Walsh, 2000).
Both white Americans and people of color oppose vouchers. Electionexit polls in Michigan and California, the two states that putvoucher initiatives to a vote in 2000, found that African Americansand Hispanics had overwhelmingly voted no (People For the AmericanWay Foundation, 2001). Results of a national poll released last fallfound that when offered five options for improving education, only 5percent of African Americans picked vouchers as the best approach.African Americans were much more likely to favor reducing class size(36 percent), improving teacher quality (23 percent), and increasingtraining for teachers and principals (26 percent) (ZogbyInternational, 2001).

Vouchers Don't Improve Student Achievement

More than a decade after the first publicly funded voucher program began, we have no good evidence thatvouchers do a better job of educating students than do public schools. The U.S. General Accounting Office(2001) found little or no difference between the academic achievement of voucher students and that ofpublic school students in Cleveland, Ohio, and Milwaukee, Wisconsin, the two urban school systems withpublicly funded voucher programs.
A report released last September compared groups of public schoolstudents and voucher students at the beginning of 1st grade and theend of 2nd grade. The public school students' average learninggains over those two years were greater than those of the voucherstudents in language, reading, and math (Metcalf, 2001).
In a 1998 report, Princeton University researcher Cecilia Rouse compared Milwaukee voucherschools with several of the city's public elementary schools that had reduced class size andprovided additional resources in the early grades. The public school students performed as well asthe voucher students in math; they significantly outperformed the voucher students in reading.

Vouchers Hurt Public Schools

Vouchers drain tax dollars from public schools and crowd outfunding for crucial reforms that can improve public schools.
As much as $27.6 million that could have gone toward classsize reduction, dropout prevention, or preschool programs wasdiverted to vouchers in the first five years of Cleveland'svoucher program. Besides the funds for vouchers themselves (amaximum of $2,250 per child), tax dollars went to otherexpenses such as record keeping and transportation (Oplinger &Willard, 1998). During the voucher program's first year,budgetary pressures forced Cleveland officials to eliminate all-daykindergarten for nonmagnet schools (American Federation of Teachers,1997).
Last year in Wisconsin, the governor's original budgetproposal called for cutting money from the state's successfulclass size reduction program and spending a similar amount to increasefunding for Milwaukee's voucher program (People For the AmericanWay Foundation, 2001). Only a determined grassroots campaign byparents, teachers, and community leaders saved the state'scommitment to the class size reduction program, which haddemonstrated its effectiveness in narrowing the achievement gapbetween white and minority students (Molnar, Smith, & Zahorik,1999, 2000).
Voucher proponents try to downplay public schools' loss offunding, claiming that any loss of per-pupil aid is offset by themoney that public schools save because they no longer need to educatevoucher students. But per-pupil aid does not only cover an individualstudent's desk, books, and instructional needs. It also coversthe overhead and other fixed costs of operating a publicschool—teachers, counselors, and other staff; utility costs;maintenance and repairs; and more. Losing a handful of students tovouchers does nothing to change these fixed costs. A financial auditof the Cleveland public schools found that, several years into thevoucher program, the public schools were “losing [state aid]without a change in their overall operating costs” (KPMG LLP,1999, sec. 9, p. 5).

Vouchers Exclude Many Students

Private schools that participate in voucher programs frequentlyexclude students who have special education needs, disabilities,behavioral problems, poor academic performance, or the wrongreligious affiliation. In other words, under voucher programs,the real “choice” belongs to the private schools, notthe poor kids.
An investigation by the People For the American Way Foundationinto the admissions practices of schools that participated in theMilwaukee voucher program in 1998–99 found that many voucherschools imposed unlawful admission requirements on voucher students,charged them unlawful fees, and discouraged parents of voucherstudents from exercising their statutory right to opt their childrenout of religious activities (NAACP-Milwaukee Branch & People Forthe American Way Foundation, 1999).
Besides the factors that prevent or discourage voucher studentsfrom entering many private schools, a considerable number of voucherstudents leave private schools before they graduate. In its fifthyear, the Milwaukee voucher program had a student attrition rate of28 percent (Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction, 2000; Witte,Sterr, & Thorn, 1995).
Voucher schools' inability or unwillingness to serve a varietyof students is not exclusive to Milwaukee. In 1998, a federal surveyof private schools in large inner cities found that between 70 and 85percent of schools would “definitely or probably” not wantto participate in a voucher program if they were required to accept“students with special needs, such as learning disabilities,limited English proficiency, or low achievement” (U.S.Department of Education, 1998, pp. xi, 51).

Vouchers Go to Many Students Who Don't Need Them

Voucher proponents emphasize the benefits of vouchers for poorfamilies whose children attend public schools. In practice, however,voucher plans direct money to many students who aren't poor orhaven't been attending public schools.
Florida's A+ voucher program sets no income caps forstudents to qualify for vouchers. A study in Ohio found that onein three students participating in the Cleveland program werealready enrolled in a private school beforereceiving a voucher (Policy Matters Ohio, 2001). Although the Milwaukeeprogram already serves families that are well above the poverty line,Wisconsin's pro-voucher governor has proposed raising the incomecaps even higher and permitting families to continue receivingvouchers once they are in the program no matter how high theirincomes rise (Legislative Fiscal Bureau, 2001).

Voucher Programs Decrease Accountability

Over the years, public schools have rightly been urged tostrengthen their accountability to the public, parents, andtaxpayers. Yet, public schools are already much more accountablethan the typical voucher school.
Decisions about the governance and operations of private schoolseligible for voucher funds are typically made behind closed doors.Voucher schools aren't required to administer state achievementtests to their students. And it has been six years since the lastcomprehensive evaluation of Milwaukee's voucher schools (PeopleFor the American Way Foundation, 2001).
An independent auditor confirmed financial mismanagement ofCleveland's voucher schools and found nearly $2 millionin questionable expenses in the first year alone (Petro, 1999). AWisconsin state audit in 2000 revealed that about 10 percent ofMilwaukee's voucher schools “had no accreditation,were not seeking accreditation, and administered no standardizedtests” (Wisconsin Legislative Audit Bureau, 2000).
Florida's A+ voucher program also fails to holdparticipating private schools accountable. Public schools receivea letter grade under the program, but private schools are notgraded, making it impossible to know whether a student who leavesa “failing” public school is entering a better privateschool.
Florida's McKay Scholarships provide vouchers for studentswith disabilities, but state officials do not provide adequateoversight. In one instance, the state continued to send voucherpayments to W. J. Redmond Academy even though the school had faileda health inspection, many students' records were incomplete,and Redmond officials had neglected to certify that all voucherstudents were eligible to receive funds (O'Connor, 2001).
When parents choose to pay to send their children to privateschools, they do so knowing that these schools operate in a differentway. But when the public is required tofund private schools, it's only fair to hold these schoolsaccountable to the public for how they spend money, hire staff,and otherwise operate. Voucher supporters want to have it bothways—to operate with public funds but to ignore a varietyof public laws and standards.

We Can Turn Public Schools Around

With nearly 90 percent of all school-age children in the UnitedStates attending public schools, we must focus our funding and energyon improving these schools. In the wake of September 11, we havegained a fresh appreciation for public schools and other institutionsthat instill common values and reflect the diversity and democraticheritage of the United States.
We can turn failing public schools around.Many public schools are already showing significant improvement.The Education Trust (2001) recently issued a report identifying1,320 high-poverty, high-minority public schools in which studentswere high achievers, “often outperforming predominantly whiteschools in wealthy communities” (p. 1). Incidentally, more thana dozen high-poverty or high-minority Cleveland public schools werecited in this report. In other words, the public schools that childrenof color attend can be excellent schools.
Critics complain that turning around a troubled public schooltakes forever, but experience shows otherwise. The right resourcesand the right strategies can create positive changes within a matterof months. After-school tutoring and other reforms have been usedwith success at Rennert Elementary School in Robeson County, NorthCarolina, for example, where 94 percent of the students qualify forfree or reduced-price lunch. Just one year after the school wasassigned a state-mandated assistance team to help coordinateimprovement strategies, Rennert students' scores in math andreading jumped 10 percent (National Education Association, 2001).
Reducing class size is one strategy that research has proven to make a difference for AfricanAmerican students (Krueger & Whitmore, 2001; Viadero, 1999). Tutorial and other programs thatprovide extra help are also effective. As Pedro Noguera, an education professor at Harvard, recentlyobserved: “It's not rocket science. In many districts, we know what works and we know whatschools need” (Chase, 2001).
So what's the problem? Very often, it's a lack of resources. Class size reduction, tutorialprograms, and after-school programs cost money. States must do more to target funding to students whoneed the most help.
Ohio is one state that has failed to do its homework in this area. From 1991 through 1998, the stateappropriated more money for its private schools ($1.1 billion) than it did to refurbish its public schools($1 billion) (Hawthorne, 1998). Even as Ohio's leaders continue to support voucher funding, they haveyet to comply with multiple state supreme court rulings that have struck down Ohio's school funding formulaas unconstitutional (Archer, 2000; Sandham, 2002).
Public schools in every city can improve—many of them are already improving.Continued progress requires us to keep our eyes on the prize and make our voices and our votes count. We mustnot allow the false promise of vouchers to distract us from our rightful purpose.

American Federation of Teachers. (1997). The Cleveland voucher program: Who chooses? Whogets chosen? Who pays? Washington, DC: Author.

Archer, J. (2000, May 17). Ohio high court again overturns finance system. Education Week,p. 25.

Chase, R. (2001, November 11). High hopes for low-performing schools.

Education Trust. (2001, December 12). First-of-its-kind report identifies thousands of high-povertyand high-minority schools across U.S. performing among top schools in their states. (News release).Washington, DC: Author.

Hawthorne, M. (1998, March 29). State aid to private schools up: Public districts feel slighted.Cincinnati Enquirer, p. A1.

KPMG LLP. (1999, September 9). Cleveland Scholarship and Tutoring Program: Final managementstudy. Cleveland, OH: Cleveland Municipal School District.

Krueger, A. B., & Whitmore, D. M. (2001, March). Would smaller classes help close theblack-white achievement gap? (Working Paper No. 451) Princeton, NJ: Princeton University.

Legislative Fiscal Bureau. (2001, March). 2001–03 Wisconsin state budget summary of governor'sbudget recommendations. Madison: Wisconsin Legislative Audit Bureau.

Metcalf, K. (2001, September). Evaluation of the Cleveland scholarship program, 1998–2000:Technical report. Bloomington: Indiana Center for Evaluation, Indiana University.

Molnar, A., Smith, P., & Zahorik, J. (1999, December). 1998–1999 evaluation results of theStudent Achievement Guarantee in Education (SAGE) program. Milwaukee: University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee,Center for Education Research, Analysis, and Innovation.

Molnar, A., Smith, P., & Zahorik, J. (2000, December). 1999–2000 evaluation results ofthe Student Achievement Guarantee in Education (SAGE) program. Milwaukee: University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee,Center for Education Research, Analysis, and Innovation.

NAACP-Milwaukee Branch, & People For the American Way Foundation. (1999, August 19). Milwaukeeparental choice program: Violations of statutory requirements. (Legal complaint filed with WisconsinSuperintendent of Public Instruction).

National Education Association. (2001, January). Priority schools resource guide. Washington,DC: Author.

O'Connor, L. (2001, October 14). Control limited in state voucher program. The SouthFlorida Sun-Sentinel, p. B1.

Oplinger, D., & Willard, D. J. (1998, March 27). Vouchers costing Ohio. Akron BeaconJournal, p. A1.

People For the American Way Foundation. (2000). Voters affirm commitment to public schools andreject vouchers on November 7. (Editorial memorandum). Washington, DC: Author.

People For the American Way Foundation. (2001, April). Punishing success: The governor's proposededucation budget in Wisconsin and the SAGE and voucher programs. Washington, DC: Author.

Petro, J. (1999, January 5). Petro issues special audit of Cleveland voucher program. (Press release).Cleveland: Auditor of State, State of Ohio.

Policy Matters Ohio. (2001, September). Cleveland school vouchers: Where the students come from.Cleveland, OH: Author.

Rouse, C. E. (1998). Schools and student achievement: More evidence from the Milwaukee parental choiceprogram. Economic Policy Review, 7(1): 61–76.

Sandham, J. (2002, January 23). Mediator has tough job in Ohio funding case. Education Week,pp. 14, 18.

U.S. Department of Education. (1998). Barriers, benefits, and costs of using private schools toalleviate overcrowding in public schools. Final report. Washington, DC: Author.

U.S. General Accounting Office. (2001, August). School vouchers: Publicly funded programs inCleveland and Milwaukee. (GAO-01-914). Washington, DC: Author.

Viadero, D. (1999, May 5). Tenn. class-size study finds long-term benefits. Education Week,p. 5.

Walsh, M. (2000, November 15). Voucher initiatives defeated in Calif., Mich. Education Week,pp. 14, 18.

Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction. (2000). Milwaukee parental school choice program(MPSCP): MPSCP facts and figures for 1999–2000. Madison: Author.

Wisconsin Legislative Audit Bureau. (2000, February). Audit summary: Milwaukee Parental Choiceprogram. Madison: Author.

Witte, J. F., Sterr, T. D., & Thorn, C. A. (1995). Fifth-year report: Milwaukee parental choiceprogram. Madison: University of Wisconsin-Madison.

Zogby International. (2001, May 23–30). Telephone poll of 1,211 adults conducted for the NationalSchool Boards Association.

Timothy McDonald has been a contributor to Educational Leadership.

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