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April 1, 2002
Vol. 59
No. 7

The Truth About Vouchers

Contrary to the claims of their opponents, voucher programs have proven that they offera positive alternative to inadequate public schools. Inner-city African American families are tired ofwaiting—and they deserve a choice.

What I see is, the people running [the public schools] don't have any sense ofurgency. . . . It's too late for you to say “Trust me. Give me time.” If my childrenare already in school, I don't have the time to give you.—Roberta Kitchen, mother of four children attending private schools in Clevelandthrough the city's school voucher program (as cited in McGroarty, 2001)
Ms. Kitchen's words reflect the fears of thousands of parents across the United States who must send theirchildren off each morning to failing and unsafe schools. For many parents, especially low-income parents,the struggle to secure an adequate education for their children can be daunting.
Abysmal test scores, alarmingly low high school graduation and college entrance rates, limitededucation opportunities within and outside schools, and racial and economic isolation have quilted the educationlandscape in many inner-city communities (Greene, 1999, 2001). These conditions have led increasingnumbers of African American parents to pursue alternatives to traditional public schools, includingtax-supported school vouchers to cover the cost of educating their children at private schools.

False Claims About School Choice

During the past 10 years, those who fear shifting the power of school assignment from the public educationsystem to low-income parents have made a concerted effort to scare the public away from supportingvouchers and charter schools. These opponents seem ready to use any rhetoric available to influence publicopinion, even when it contradicts the research about school choice. They claim that school voucherprograms use selective admission practices to “cream” the best students away from public schools; thatschools participating in school voucher programs exclude students with special learning needs; that schoolvouchers do not lead to improved academic achievement; that vouchers will increase racial segregation andlead to greater divisions among the races; and that school choice will destroy public education. To countersuch myths, we must examine the facts about school voucher programs.

An Overview of Voucher Programs

Five large, tax-supported school voucher programs currently operate in the United States.
Since 1869, Vermont has provided tuition to children in 90 rural towns to attend either public ornonreligious private schools. In 1998–99, Vermont covered the cost of tuition for 6,505 students throughreimbursements to their parents. About 30 percent of these students attended 83 private schools across thestate.
Since 1873, Maine has also provided public funds for private school tuition for rural families wholive in areas without easy access to public schools. The tuition amount is capped at the average amount thestate pays to cover the cost of educating public high school students, approximately $6,000 per pupil(Heritage Foundation, 2001). In 1999–2000, 5,614 students from 55 communities received vouchers toattend private schools. Voucher students accounted for 35 percent of all Maine students attending privateschools.
The Milwaukee Parental Choice Program is the largest school voucher program in the UnitedStates, serving low-income families in religious andnonreligious private schools. The program has grown from 341 students in 7 private schools in 1990–91 to10,882 students in 106 private schools in 2001–02. To be eligible for the vouchers, families must be at orbelow 175 percent of the federal poverty level ($30,913 for a family of four in 2001–02) and reside in thecity of Milwaukee. Private schools that participate in the program must agree to accept all eligible studentsand use a random selection process when applications exceed available space.
The Cleveland Scholarship and Tutoring Program has grown from 1,994 students in 1996–97 to4,195 students attending 50 religious and nonreligious private schools in 2001–02. The program servesstudents in grades K–8. Scholarships are awarded by lottery, and preference is given to families whoseincomes fall at or below the federal poverty level ($17,650 for a family of four in 2001).
Florida operates two different programs: the Florida A+ Opportunity Scholarship Program(enacted by the state legislature in 1999) and the McKay Scholarships for Students with DisabilitiesProgram (added in 2000). The A+ program provides tax-supported scholarships to parents whose childrenattend a public school that has been identified by the state as “failing” for two years in a four-year period,enabling parents to send their children to the private or public schools of their choice. In 2001–02, 47students used the A+ vouchers to attend 5 private schools, and 23 students used them to attend a new publicschool.
The McKay scholarship serves parents who determine that their disabled children are not makingadequate progress at the public school to which they are assigned. In 2001–02, 4,276 students received aMcKay scholarship; they attended 357 different public and private schools throughout the state.

Voucher Schools Do Not “Cream” the Best Students

Opponents of voucher programs often claim that private schools participating in voucher programs useselective admissions to siphon off the best kids from public schools. Sandra Feldman, president of theAmerican Federation of Teachers, stated in a radio interview that “In Milwaukee, thousands of eligiblestudents didn't participate [in the choice program because] . . . they couldn't find schools that would acceptthem” (2001).
These claims do not reflect the facts, according to independent, state-financed research conductedon both the Milwaukee and Cleveland programs. In a state-mandated evaluation of the Milwaukee voucherprogram from 1990 to 1995, Witte, Sterr, and Thorn (1995) found thatstudents who ultimately enrolled . . . were from very low-income families, considerably below the average[Milwaukee Public Schools] family and about $500 below the low-income (free-lunch-eligible) MPSfamily. . . . Blacks and Hispanics were the primary applicants . . . both being overrepresented comparedwith [the district]. . . . Prior test scores of Choice students [showed that they] were achieving considerablyless than MPS students and somewhat less than low-income MPS students. (pp. 3–7)
Metcalf (1999) found similar results for the Cleveland voucher program:The scholarship program effectively serves the population of families and children for which it wasintended and developed. The program was designed to serve low-income students while maintaining theracial composition of the Cleveland Public Schools. . . . The majority of children who participate in theprogram are unlikely to have enrolled in a private school without a scholarship. (pp. 1–2)
In all five large-scale voucher programs, participating private schools must adhere toantidiscrimination provisions established within their respective states. In Milwaukee, Cleveland, andFlorida, voucher students are enrolled in schools on a first-come, first-served basis or through a lotterysystem; the schools cannot pick and choose among them. These guidelines are clear and can be easilyobtained by contacting the state education departments in the states where voucher programs exist.

Vouchers Serve Special Needs Students

In 1999, Tammy Johnson of Wisconsin Citizen Action claimed thatKids . . . with learning disabilities . . . kids who have behavioral problems, kids who have been involvedwith the juvenile criminal justice system. Those kids get left behind [by school vouchers because] a lot ofprivate schools . . . don't have to take them, so that leaves it for public education to deal with thosechildren. (Fuller & Caire, 2001, p. 10)
Again, state laws in Wisconsin, Ohio, and Florida forbid participating schools to discriminateagainst students on the basis of their disabilities. The state of Ohio actually provides schools that servespecial needs voucher students with extra financial aid. One of Florida's voucher programs specificallyserves students with disabilities. According to the Wisconsin Legislative Audit Bureau (2000), there wereapproximately 170 students with special needs attending Milwaukee's voucher program in 1998–99.

Vouchers Can Improve Academic Achievement

Numerous studies have focused on whether school voucher programs improve the academic achievementof students who participate in them. Opponents and proponents of school vouchers go back and forthdebating which studies present significant evidence and which do not.
The U.S. General Accounting Office (2001) and the RAND Corporation (Gill, Timpane, Ross, &Brewer, 2001) recently weighed in. Both reports found that more research is needed before we can stateconclusively whether school voucher programs effectively help students overcome achievement hurdles.
Ever since I spent two years as a consultant for the Wisconsin Department of Public Instructionhelping to develop their high school graduation test, I have avoided arguing over tiny increases in students'standardized test scores. Most of the standardized tests our students take should not be used as the onlymeasure of their knowledge or their capacity to think and learn. These tests measure a limited amount ofknowledge and a limited number of skills.
I do believe that standardized measurements can be useful in identifying the building blocks ofbasic knowledge and skills that students should have acquired as a result of the education they receive. Butwhen we limit our discussions about improving student achievement to moving a group of AfricanAmerican students from the 34th percentile to the 37th percentile on a standardized test in a two-yearperiod, we may simply be demonstrating that these students have improved to answer 10 out of 20questions correctly, compared to 9 questions two years before.
For those who are concerned with test scores, however, the research on existing voucher programslooks promising. Metcalf (1999) found statistically significant gains in test scores of Ohio voucherstudents. Greene, Peterson, and Du (1999) also found statistically significant gains in reading and mathscores for Milwaukee voucher students. And in a hotly debated research report, Howell, Wolf, Peterson,and Campbell (2000) found significant increases in test scores among African American studentsparticipating in private scholarship programs in Dayton, Ohio; Washington, D.C.; and New York City.

School Choice Does Not Increase Racial Segregation

Opponents of school choice argue that such programs will increase racial and ethnic segregation withinschools and neighborhoods. Fortunately, these claims of heightened segregation do not represent thevoucher programs that currently exist in the United States. On the contrary, private schools that havetraditionally served mostly white students have become more racially and ethnically diverse as a result oftheir participation in school voucher programs. Students enrolled in the Milwaukee, Cleveland, and Floridavoucher programs represent a racially diverse group.
A February 2000 evaluation by the nonpartisan Wisconsin Legislative Audit Bureau indicated thatduring the 1998–99 school year, 62.4 percent of students participating in the Milwaukee voucher programwere African American, compared with 61.4 percent of students attending Milwaukee public schools. A1999 evaluation by the State of Ohio indicated that approximately 60 percent of Cleveland scholarshiprecipients were African American, 17 percent were non-Hispanic white, and 13 percent were Hispanic(Metcalf, 1999). The state of Florida does not collect demographic data for students in the A+ program, butamong Florida's 2000–01 McKay scholarship recipients, 36 percent were African American, 35 percentwere white, 26 percent were Hispanic, and 3 percent were multi-racial or other.
In addition, school choice opponents should not assume that traditional public schools offer thebest model of racial and ethnic integration. The Harvard University Civil Rights Project recently releasedfindings showing that public schools in the United States are more racially segregated now than they were20 years ago (Orfield, 2001). Beverly Daniels Tatum, author of Why Are All the Black Kids SittingTogether in the Cafeteria? (1997), has reported on the high level of self-imposed racial isolation amongstudents within public schools.
Racial integration is important. The future of U.S. society depends on people from different racialand ethnic backgrounds developing strong, positive, and lasting relationships with one another. I believeparents should do everything they can to expose their children to people who look different and behave,think, worship, and learn differently from the way they do.
But the first purpose of our public and private K–12 schools is to educate students. We have spentfar too many years engaged in social engineering practices by seating diverse students next to one anotherin a classroom and calling that integration. Instead, we should focus on making sure that each studentsitting in our classrooms has access to the best education opportunities and the best teachers we canprovide.

School Choice Does Not Harm Public Schools

Opponents of school vouchers have tried mightily to present evidence that school voucher programs aretaking money away from public schools. In fact, school voucher programs actually save taxpayers and thepublic schools money.
A report issued by Milwaukee Public Schools explained that if the voucher program in Milwaukeewere to end and the school district were to take in all the participating students, operating costs within thedistrict would rise an additional $70 million, putting an increased strain on local and state taxpayers(Helgerson & Millen, 2001). Currently, voucher students receive slightly less than two-thirds of what thestate and the city of Milwaukee pay to educate students in the public schools.
An article in USA Today stated that during the first 10 years of the Milwaukee Parental ChoiceProgram (1990–1999), real (inflation-adjusted) spending by Milwaukee Public Schools grew by 25 percent,while enrollment grew by only 8 percent (Henry & DeBarros, 2000). In addition, a report by KPMG(1999), public service consultants hired by the Ohio Department of Education to study the administrationand financial implications of the Cleveland Scholarship and Tutoring Program, reported that per-pupil costs in Cleveland's publicschools were three times greater than similar costs associated with the choice program. KPMG also reported thatthe program had not cut state financial support for Cleveland's public schools.

Why African Americans Support Choice

Many African Americans who are now ardent choice advocates have struggled with the notion ofsupporting school vouchers for some time. I am one of those people. Many of us have paid our dues on thebattlefield, fighting for greater education opportunities for African American students for many years.
Instead of viewing school vouchers as a means to destroy, neglect, or turn their backs on publiceducation, most African Americans I have encountered see school vouchers as a means to redefine the waypublic education functions in the United States. They see vouchers as both a viable solution to theeducation crisis plaguing African American communities and a way to give parents power to determinewhat is best for their own children.
I believe most African Americans who support vouchers do so because they understand theconsequences of African American students not receiving a good education. They understand that you can'tintegrate a society and sustain your own community when only a small percentage of students receive theacademic degrees necessary to hold positions of leadership and retain stable employment. A growingnumber of people see school vouchers and charter schools as a revolutionary way to create new learningenvironments for students—environments characterized by high expectations, mutual respect betweenteacher and pupil, and effective teaching and learning strategies.
Although some opponents try to portray African Americans who support school choice as “tools”of the right wing, in reality most of those involved in advancing school choice do so because they knowpublic schools are failing African American students. The fact that conservative and liberal organizations,foundations, and individuals are supporting the same cause merely reflects the interesting politics thatsurround education reform.

We Have Waited Too Long

For far too long, African Americans have waited for public schools to keep their promise of an excellenteducation for all students. Although thousands of public schools across the United States do a great job ofeducating students—even poor African American students—these great schools are in short supplyin communities where many students from low-income families reside.
The existing evidence demonstrates that school voucher programs can and do work for largenumbers of students. Vouchers do not, as the critics have alleged, present more problems than solutions.
Vouchers alone won't solve all our schools' problems, nor will they answer all the challengesof educating African American students. But if designed and implemented appropriately and equitably, schoolvouchers can provide the hope, power, and results for which African American parents have been searchingfor more than 100 years.

Feldman, S. (2001, January 8). Talk of the nation [Radio program]. Washington, DC: NationalPublic Radio.

Fuller, H. L., & Caire, K. (2001). Lies and distortions: Thecampaign against school vouchers. Milwaukee, WI: Marquette University.

Gill, B. P., Timpane, P. M., Ross, K. E., & Brewer, D. J. (2001). Rhetoric versusreality: What we know and what we need to know about vouchers and charter schools. Santa Monica, CA: RAND.

Greene, J. P. (1999, October 8). The racial, economic and religious context ofparental choice in Cleveland. Conference paper presented at the Association for PolicyAnalysis and Management, Washington, DC.

Greene, J. P. (2001) High school graduation rates in the UnitedStates. Washington, DC: Black Alliance for Educational Options.

Greene, J. P., Peterson, P. E., & Du, J. (1999). The effectiveness of school choice: The Milwaukeeexperiment. Education and Urban Society, 31(2), 190–213.

Helgerson, J. A., & Millen, A. D. (2001, June 25). Analysis of FY02 fiscal impact onMPS if MPCP is eliminated. Milwaukee, WI: Milwaukee Public Schools.

Henry, T., & DeBarros, A. (2000, October 24). Vouchers enter second decade: Milwaukee finds no easyanswers in school choice. USA Today, p. D1.

Heritage Foundation. (2001). State profile, Maine. Available:www.heritage.org/schools/maine.html

Howell, W. G., Wolf, P. J., Peterson, P. E., & Campbell, D. E. (2000, August). Test-score effects of schoolvouchers in Dayton, Ohio; New York City; and Washington, DC: Evidence from randomized field trials.Cambridge, MA: Harvard University, Program on Education Policy and Governance. Available:www.ksg.harvard.edu/pepg

KPMG. (1999). Cleveland Scholarship and Tutoring Program: Management study final report. Dayton,OH: Author.

McGroarty, D. (2001). Trinnietta gets a chance: Six families and their school choice experience.Washington, DC: Heritage Foundation.

Metcalf, K. (1999, September). Evaluation of the Cleveland Scholarship and Tutoring Program 1996–1999:Executive summary. Bloomington: Indiana University Center for Evaluation, Indiana University.

Orfield, G. (2001, July). Schools more separate: Consequences of a decade of resegregation. Cambridge,MA: The Civil Rights Project, Harvard University.

Tatum, B. D. (1997). Why are all the black kids sitting together in the cafeteria?New York: BasicBooks.

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

Wisconsin Legislative Audit Bureau. (2000, February). An evaluation: MilwaukeeParental Choice Program. Madison: Author.

Witte, J., Sterr, T., & Thorn, C. (1995). Fifth year report—Milwaukee parental choice program. Madison:University of Wisconsin-Madison.

Kaleem M. S. Caire has been a contributor to Educational Leadership.

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