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Vouching for Success?

Debating School Choice
illustration: Jon Cannell ©2003
In the 1960s, renowned University of Chicago economist Milton Friedman forcefully argued that parents are educational consumers who, through taxes, pay for public education and, as a result, ought to be able to choose the schools their children attend. The logic ran that a tax-funded voucher should allow parents to remove their children from public schools and put their tax dollars toward a private education. This would create a market system that pressured public schools to improve or lose students. Opposition was immediate and fierce. Defenders of the public education system asserted that the use of vouchers would violate the Constitution, balkanize society, and lead to a kind of educational social Darwinism which would advance the interests of the elite at the expense of the poor. For four decades, Americans have vigorously debated school choice, vouchers and the capacity of educational markets to improve schooling. In June of 2002, with the landmark case, Zelman v. Simmons-Harris, the U.S. Supreme Court authorized the use of governmental funds to support children's education in parochial and private schools. School choice proponents heralded the 5-4 decision as the revolutionary beginning of a new educational free market in America, while opponents feared the imminent demise of American public schools.
“Proponents of both sides regularly make ardent claims and counter claims about either the progressive or the destructive role of educational markets.”
Though the dust is still settling, it's already clear that theZelman decision is unlikely to lead to either Armageddon or the Promised Land for American public education. Even though Americans generally believe that consumer choice is a good thing, there are many important questions to be answered about establishing an educational marketplace. How much should vouchers be worth? How should private and parochial schools be held accountable to the public that funds them? How do you guarantee students and families equal access to all schools? How much private sector capacity is there to meet the needs of 50 million American students? How do we assure quality and high standards for all? Ed.magazine's editors asked school administrators, teachers, policy analysts, and researchers to offer their perspectives on this matter. Their responses are below. In the meantime, the jury on vouchers is out and likely to be out for some time. We continue to lack sufficient data to draw any conclusions about the efficacy of vouchers as a means of improving children's education. While 26 states have voted against the voucher option, several locales, including Milwaukee, Cleveland, and Florida, have begun voucher experiments—often with political support from an unlikely coalition of conservative Republicans and inner-city, African-American activists. All the while, proponents of both sides regularly make ardent claims and counter claims about either the progressive or the destructive role of educational markets. This is a battle that will continue to be fought state by state. Voucher proponents have taken heart from Zelman and are becoming better organized and raising the funds necessary to wage a protracted campaign for what they see as the last, best hope for American education. Political opposition, led by powerful teachers' unions, will mount formidable campaigns against market strategies they see as not only threatening but unfair and educationally unsound. The best guess is that our educational systems of the future are likely to be hybrids, featuring aspects of the market, of vouchers, of charter schools, of standards-based reform, and of the current system of providing public education. As we advance to that future, we'd do well to check the rhetoric at the door and keep our minds open, yet focused on the challenge of educating all of our children. — Paul Reville is a lecturer at the Harvard Graduate School of Education and the executive director of the Center for Education Research and Policy at the Massachusetts Institute for a New Commonwealth. Odetta Fields (Web Exclusive) Our district participates in a desegregation program called the Voluntary Transfer Program (VTP) wherein approximately 20% of our student body comes from the city of St. Louis. Though we are advocates of the desegregation program we, along with other suburban schools, will be forced to make a tough decision: keep St. Louis city children at our expense or send them back to a system that is clearly fragile and ailing. Thus if our district chooses to end our participation, I can see how vouchers can become an alluring choice for families who once participated in the VTP. My concern, though, is that if vouchers are offered as an alternative to the desegregation program, the St. Louis public school system will be forced into the same exact predicament. Families will remove students from the schools at will. District money set aside for that student will flow to other schools, especially private and parochial schools. Schools in the city will be left to struggle, often alone, with a student body deprived of its promising students. Vouchers should not be the panacea for urban education reform, especially in Missouri. Perhaps St. Louis should incorporate charter schools and allow the charters liberty to reach state standards in creative ways. Another option could be fashioning urban schools into community centers, where not only students receive a viable education, but parents as well. Radical ideas, I’m sure. But I fear without radical revision of what urban education can be, our Missouri city schools can become veritable ghost towns. Odetta Fields, Ed.M’01, is an English teacher at Clayton High School in Clayton, Missouri. Dana Shaw (Web Exclusive) The voucher program is like strapping a band-aid on a festering wound. It may do some good but will never cure the problem. Public education in this country is going to continue to struggle and fail as long as public schools try to be all things to all people. I know that the "melting pot" theory represents the historic philosophy of the United States, but it is failing miserably in our schools. Vouchers are popular because they allow students to go to schools that specialize primarily in an academic education. For years, parochial schools and more recently independent institutions, have catered to students who have the intellectual firepower to benefit from the type of education offered in these schools. Unfortunately, they can not handle all the young people who seek entrance to competitive colleges and universities. Therefore, this country is doomed to continue to backslide until a solid system of public education is founded and financed. What is wrong with having a dual- or even three-track approach to high school curricula? There is a crying need in this country for skilled craftsmen. Our schools do not prepare students for this kind of life. Instead, we try to pretend that most, if not all, should be on an almost exclusively academic track, thereby requiring that standards of achievement be lowered and curricula watered down to accommodate the average to below-average ability student. Nobody benefits. Everybody suffers. Instead, let’s dream of a system that helps young people discover the track that is best for them at a young age; and for those for whom post-secondary school may not be the best route, provide training so that they will graduate from high school with marketable skills. That done, those who are college-bound may matriculate in classes where academic expectations are higher than they are now and will then go off to college with the necessary reading, writing, and computational skills that will allow them to succeed and thrive. Our children suffer by being all thrown together in the same proverbial pot. There is nothing wrong with making distinctions among students early in life. Indeed, if this were done, more youngsters would succeed, feel good about themselves, and go on to live happy, productive lives. Dana P. Shaw, Ed.M.'82, is the retired Head of the Upper School at Saint Edward's School, Vero Beach, Florida. James Barker (Web Exclusive) Today’s public education system resembles the market for Swiss Army style knives. Like the multi-tool, traditional public schools are designed to serve the widest variety of needs. Some people are OK with multi-tools because they do many jobs well enough. Others would sacrifice versatility for a more finely tuned tool that does a specific job very well. In public education today, there are not enough specialty tools to meet the needs of our students. Look through a directory of private schools and you will see an incredible array of options: schools for gifted students; schools for students with diagnosed learning disabilities; schools that teach through arts; schools that teach through athletics; schools that teach through nature; Montessori schools; Core Knowledge schools; and the list goes on. All of these schools are specialty tools and the families who choose them prefer their particular approach to the educational multi-tool. Magnet and charter schools represent a positive step towards choice in public education. Unfortunately, even with the proliferation of charter schools, we haven't been able to meet public demand. Evidence: most if not all the charter schools in Boston have waiting lists of students who would like to enroll. Until and unless a sufficient number and variety of public schools are opened, many students will default to their local, multi-tool public schools. By providing access to private and parochial schools as well as charter and other public schools, vouchers begin to level the playing field for families from lower income backgrounds. With vouchers, families could at least try an education designed more specifically to meet the needs and interests of their individual students. James Barker, Ed.M,’01 is Director of Financial Aid and Associate Director of Admission at St. Paul's School, a private high school in Concord, New Hampshire. Michael Fultz (Web Exclusive) Vouchers enhance choice, which enhances self-determination, which is good. Another consideration: choice in education already exists (as any real-estate agent knows well), but is so highly correlated with socioeconomic status as to preclude low-income (and some middle-class) folks from availing themselves of the choice—and the resulting social and political capital—which others enjoy. Choice does not preclude working for fundamental change in public school systems, nor does it necessarily equate with an unlimited endorsement of “privatization,” as opponents frequently charge. (In fact, stereotyping and attempting to silence all considerations of vouchers with the shrill cry of “privatization,” an unfortunate tendency in the liberal-progressive community, is incredibly politically myopic and racially patronizing, as far as I am concerned. If the Left can’t understand and sympathize with the plight of at least some low-income and minority, largely urban, populations who are stuck in woeful schools and want to “get out,” and if the Left can’t characterize that desire for educational and social mobility as anything other than a drive for “privatization,” well...so much for the Rainbow Coalition.) Other considerations: some ask, what will happen to “poor choosers?” Well, perhaps there will be some who might fall within that category, but the size of that group is really unknown, and, to draw a parallel, no one says that we should not allow people to vote because some are “poor choosers” or don’t vote at all. Some say that democracy will suffer if vouchers are widely implemented, but is it overly cynical to ask, “more than it is suffering now?” What policy alternatives to choice through vouchers are being offered? The standards movement? Well, thanks, but no thanks to the No Child Left Behind legislation with its mandatory testing provisions and its destruction of bilingual education. And, where are the voices calling for “opportunity to learn” standards to be taken more seriously, to be as rigorously implemented as the “performance” standards? If American public education cannot deliver equitable opportunities to learn, guess who will suffer the most. If choice through vouchers can create conditions that promote academic achievement, and if it can put political pressure on what are often intractable urban school systems, it merits serious consideration. What’s needed are experiments with different types of vouchers plans are needed, regulated in a variety of ways but focused on enhancing educational access and opportunities for low-income groups. Liberal-progressives might raise a hue and cry for “alternatives” as an essential part of our social and educational vision. We need to do so now. To fail to do so will merely perpetuate the status quo. Michael Fultz, Ed.M.'80, Ed.D.'87, is an assistant professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Michael R. Olneck (Web Exclusive) Voucher proposals pose two dilemmas to those committed to a democratic vision of public schooling. First, while vouchers are a means favored by conservatives to diminish publicly guaranteed social rights, and to advance principles of privatization and marketization, they are among the few remaining means that offer the inner-city poor the possibility of a decent education. Second, while vouchers are a means favored by the Christian Right to weaken the separation of church and state, they are also a means to advance particular visions of a “multicultural America.” Ideally, public schooling furthers a sense of commonality and community while respecting diversity. It democratizes opportunities for human development and fulfillment, and it recognizes the equal worth of all citizens. Within a competitive capitalist social order, it broadens opportunities for mobility and success, and contributes to the erosion of privilege. “Actually existing” public schooling, of course, falls far short of these ideals. The question here is whether the extension of vouchers will expand or narrow the distance between ideals and realities. As Gary Orfield’s Civil Rights Project at Harvard has shown, school desegregation is being dismantled, not advanced. As the recent decision in Campaign for Fiscal Equity v. State of New York shows, even state constitutional guarantees of “a sound basic education” may mean no more than a “minimally adequate” education that enables a person only to hold some job, and to not “be a charge on the public fisc.” In this context, is it any wonder that organizations like the Black Alliance for Educational Options, and urban legislators like Wisconsin’s Polly Williams, have promoted school choice as an avenue for escaping the “savage inequalities” of inner-city schools? It is worth remembering, too, that an early proposal for vouchers for the poor emanated in the mid-1970's from the Center for Public Policy, a Cambridge-based offshoot of the progressive Institute for Social Policy in Washington, D.C. In Hamilton, Ontario not long ago, Orthodox Jews joined in a coalition with fundamentalist Christians demanding public funding for their schools. Their demand was based not on arguments about double taxation or the free exercise of religion. Rather, their demand was based on principles of multiculturalism. In his book, The Culture of Disbelief, Stephen Carter, likened demands for creationist teaching to demands for multicultural curricula, and gave his support to educational vouchers. If multiculturalism is to promote the flourishing of a diversity of particularities, then multiculturalists’ support for vouchers would seem to necessarily follow. I am uneasy supporting vouchers. But I am hard-pressed to confidently oppose them. I am, however, certain that if conservatives are not hypocrites, they will insist that Cleveland’s suburban schools open—rather than, as they have close—their doors to the students whose vouchers, at conservatives’ behest, Zelman upheld as constitutional. Michael R. Olneck, M.A.T.'70, Ed.D.'76, is Professor of Educational Policy Studies and Sociology at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.  Casey Lartigue With the Supreme Court giving its official approval to the use of school vouchers, we will now get a chance to see how parents respond once they are free to leave failing schools. While defenders of public schools discuss the importance of being loyal to the system, the loyalty has been false, based upon compulsory attendance. For true loyalty, we must look to private and voluntary relationships. Albert Hirschman, author of the 1970 classic Exit, Voice, and Loyalty, discussed the ways that people respond to failing organizations. In short, they either flee (as many middle-class parents have done) or attempt to change the system from within (Cleveland, Ohio’s city councilwoman Fannie Lewis says she has been fighting to improve the public schools in Cleveland since 1951). School choice gives parents the ability to opt-out of schools not serving them well. It also gives them the power to make changes within the current system, if they choose to remain. The children who supposedly will get left behind will also benefit from educational freedom for all. How so? The "supermarket effect." We all benefit from coupon-clippers who check the price of every good. When I see a little old lady holding up the line with 20 coupons, I never complain. Instead, I'd like to give her a kiss on the forehead or a pat on the back, because it is shoppers like her who help keep storeowners from gouging the lazy shoppers. That, and the opportunity we all have to shop elsewhere. Likewise, it will be the efforts of aggressive parents, interviewing teachers and administrators, who will bring energy to previously unresponsive schools. It isn't surprising that research finds that parents in school choice programs and private schools are much more satisfied with their schools. They have chosen to be where they are, and even when they aren't directly involved they know that their voices will be listened to, when necessary, by administrators. The Supreme Court ruling giving families an exit out of public schools with choice means that parents will be able to exercise their voice and choice. Casey Lartigue, Ed.M.'91, is a policy analyst with Cato's Center for Educational Freedom. Bella Rosenberg Within the past 6 months, two large federal mandates in education have taken schools in contradictory directions—and both in the name of poor children. The Supreme Court's ruling on vouchers sanctioned a hands-off market approach to schooling while the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLBA) laid the heaviest federal hand on state and local control of schools in U.S. history. Consistency may be the hobgoblin of small minds; yet the contrast between allowing taxpayer support of private schools, which are neither accountable nor transparent to the public, and imposing the most stringent reporting and accountability standards on all public schools should alarm the fair-minded. Private schools, unlike public schools, decide who to teach, what to teach, and whether and how to measure and report student outcomes, among other freedoms. So long as they are privately financed, such independence is legitimate. Public dollars, however, carry an obligation of transparency and accountability to the public that private schools strenuously resist. For example, only a third of private education providers say they would accept voucher students if it meant state testing. (Under NCLBA, states must test all public school students, annually, in grades 3-8.) Only 36 percent would participate if they had to modify their admissions policies, which are selective even in non-elite schools; and only 15 percent would participate if required to accept special-needs students. Voucher advocates defend a double standard for public and publicly funded private schools. Hailing the morality of parent choice, they ignore that private schools get to select their students. Insisting that accountability to parents is enough, they disenfranchise the more than 70 percent of taxpayers who do not have school-age children but who would nonetheless pay the voucher bill. The vast majority of the public consistently indicate on polls that publicly funded private schools should be as transparent and accountable as public schools. In light of recent corporate scandals, that desire probably won't diminish. After all, a market approach to schooling without full and accurate information or standards would be a disaster for the poor and a scandal in the making for all. Bella Rosenberg, Ed.M,'72, is assistant to the president at the American Federation of Teachers. Frederick Hess I am one of the few people around who doesn't think of educational vouchers as a personal issue. In fact, I am always kind of puzzled by people who have an emotive response—including my friends who endorse them and those who oppose them. Vouchers (much like accountability or differentiated teacher pay) are just a policy instrument that provides a different way to approach education. They may be a good idea or a bad idea; all that is certain is that they will produce change. Many critics assert that voucher programs will undermine civic values, promote racial or socio-economic segregation, prompt schools to discriminate based on student ability, and undermine the public commitment to failing schools. These charges are not facts; they are contestable claims subject to empirical evaluation. Proponents argue that voucher programs will have the opposite effects. The truth is that the impact of any voucher program will depend upon its design. More significantly, the more impassioned critiques of vouchers tend to disregard concerns about the current quality of local schools. Many of the ills these critics fear already exist today in traditional schools. We ought not speculate upon the hypothesized risks of voucher programs in isolation, but ought to weigh their potential risks and benefits against the current condition of local public schooling. There are five arenas for questions that can help to guide our thinking. In general they are: What goals are we pursuing? Who should have final authority for a child's education? Who should be permitted to provide schooling? Are schools obliged to treat all students equally—regardless of aptitude or interest—or should they enroll and/or organize students as they deem appropriate? And, What components of schooling should we consider to be public? In answering these, we may find that the opposite sides are not so far apart as they sometimes imagine. Once we move past the slogans, we'll be able to focus the conversation on how to best serve all of America's children. Frederick Hess, Ed.M.'90, is Resident Scholar at the American Enterprise Institute. Bill Johnson Milwaukee has long been a hotbed for urban educational reform. In 1990, the Milwaukee Parental Choice Program (MPCP) was enacted and is now the nation's oldest and largest tax-supported voucher program for low-income students. I studied carefully the MPCP while earning my Master degree at the Harvard Graduate School of Education in 1992 and, then, founded the Nativity Jesuit Middle School for Hispanic males, in the heart of Milwaukee's south side. Choice works in Milwaukee. Many of the Catholic and other private schools surrounding Nativity have large majorities of their students in Choice. Parents of these students have been empowered to vote with their educational dollars from the state and have opted out of public schools. Their children attend schools that are close to their homes, have high academic expectations and provide the environment for student success, and often enjoy a high rate of parental involvement in the life of the school. Choice has put parents in the driver's seat rather than an administrative bureaucracy. It is helping the State of Wisconsin produce better educated students, workers, and citizens. This is good for everyone, even the public schools. Through Choice, low-income parents now participate in some of the choices long enjoyed by middle and upper-class parents. In opting out of public schools, Choice parents are helping to reform a Milwaukee Public School (MPS) system that has resisted or subverted other reform efforts. Choice schools have created an external challenge through market competition to the relative monopoly of MPS that has regularly failed far too many students; especially the poor, recent immigrants, and racial minorities. But the best and most important news is that students in both Choice and Public schools are improving academically as they are being better served. A recent study of Milwaukee's choice program by the Manhattan Institute found that public school test scores actually go up when more students have access to choice. Choice has given MPS incentives to improve. While expanding parental options for children's education in Milwaukee, school choice has transformed public education into a multi-sector delivery system for the good of everyone. Father Bill Johnson, Ed.M.'92, is president of Nativity Jesuit Middle School in Milwaukee. Chip Phillips I have read that many Americans, since 9/11, are feeling a sense of powerlessness and futility about decisions being made in Washington. As a public school teacher for 22 years, I, too, now feel that my voice is not being heard by policymakers. That's affecting me, and more importantly my students, in ways that I find contrary to quality teaching. It's been bad enough that, as a teacher who makes a legitimate effort every day to reach each child, I have to contend with the test-craziness that's sweeping through our nation's schools. But, another political agenda, vouchers, just refuses to go away. What do vouchers do to make a school more effective? Do they improve the quality of instruction? Do they provide for adequate materials? Can they repair dilapidated facilities? No. These are the real issues in poor schools. But these serious problems are completely disregarded as vouchers send funds away from those schools—and in the name of equity! I know dedicated teachers who work in schools that have been labeled "failing," and I'm proud to call them colleagues. They can't control who walks into their classroom, how prepared that individual is for school, if that person has had a hot meal, or even if that person has a home. Yet, they go the extra mile, providing before and after school tutoring, and seeing to it that their children leave school with a full belly and (hopefully) some new knowledge. For those of us who bring our best to classrooms full of conscripted children (many from unimaginable backgrounds), vouchers are a slap in the face. By labeling certain schools as "failing," vouchers denigrate my profession and promote the notion that public schools, as an entity, are failing our society. Anyone who has ever put serious thought into what ails our schools knows that until our nation's leaders commit to the safety, health, well-being, and equitable education of our children, partisan and pedagogically unfounded nonsense like vouchers will continue to foul the waters of meaningful educational reform. Chip Phillips, Ed.M '83, teaches science at the Southside Elementary School in Sarasota, Florida. Britt Flanagan All parents should have the right to school choice. Having said this, can vouchers benefit all children? No, but they can provide a vehicle for systemic change. Much of the literature on vouchers is thought provoking. Research by the Program on Education Policy and Governance on voucher programs in New York City, Washington, D.C., and Dayton, Ohio, suggests that African-American students benefit significantly, and more than any other ethnic groups after two years in a private school. Arizona's free education market solved it's problems by allowing administrators, teachers, and parents to find or create schools that fit their preferences. Just the prospect of vouchers has recently inspired improvement in some Florida schools. Coming from a background in both public and private education, it's clear to me that a cookie cutter educational system does not serve all children. It is also not surprising to me that students perform better in countries that give families a choice; parents know what their children need and tend to be more satisfied with their selections. Specific program inadequacy is the most common reason why students leave public schools to come to independent schools. That is not so say that independent schools benefit all children. Independent schools define their own unique mission and philosophy, and recognize their inherent limitations as they select appropriate students. Only with a completely decentralized education system will our schools effectively handle the twenty-first century needs of our children. This model encourages parents to affect change or to move to other schools. Vouchers provide the medium for this to occur. Britt Flanagan, Ed.M.'82, is Dean of Admission at Western Reserve Academy and Past Interim Executive Director of the Ohio Association of Independent Schools. John Jackson In 1954, the Supreme Court's Brown v. Board of Education decision mandated equity in education. Over the past 48 years, there have been significant gains in several areas of our public educational system. Currently, there are more students graduating from high school and enrolling in college than ever before. However, the Supreme Court's Brown mandate was to ensure access to a high quality public education to all students, and those ultimately responsible for developing and supporting a foundation for such opportunities—elected officials, policymakers, and the post-Brown courts—have fallen far short of the target. Some of these Brown trustees have even begun to take steps to eradicate the Court's Brown mandate, pushing instead for initiatives, like vouchers, which use public dollars to, at best, extend educational opportunities to a select few. Pro-voucher proponents cite the U.S. Supreme Court's recent decision in Zelman v. Simmons-Harris as a stamp of approval for their voucher journey. In Zelman, the Supreme Court upheld the First Amendment constitutionality of the Cleveland voucher program. The Supreme Court found the Cleveland voucher program to be neutral in all respects to endorsing a religion in violation of the Establishment Clause. The Supreme Court's decision, itself, was however equally neutral as to the viability of the voucher initiative as an effective approach to reach the Court's original mission in Brown—to provide all students access to a high-quality public education. The Supreme Court likely remained silent on this issue because of the limited range of impact created by voucher programs when juxtaposed with the Brown Court's broad goal of equal opportunities for all children. The Supreme Court's mandate in Brown was less about immediate results and more about prioritizing our national goals and laying a foundation for future successes. Building this foundation is rooted in educationally sound policies and practices such as reducing class sizes, recruiting and retaining qualified teachers and increasing parental/family involvement. America has the resources and human capital to build on the foundation that Brown established. Putting aside political pandering and "band-aid" approaches to accomplishing the task will to be the greatest impediment to reaching our national goal. John Jackson, Ed.M.'98, Ed.D.'01, is national director of education at the NAACP.