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Too Many Children Left Behind
The case against school vouchers
Paul Street & Dennis A. Kass
In an ominous 5-4 decision handed down on June 27, 2002, the Supreme Court made standard claims of concern for poor inner-city children in a decision that permits parents to use public funds to pay for their childrens tuition at private and religious schools. In an opinion that delighted right circles, the court ruled that a public school voucher plan in Cleveland is a program of true private choice. The plan, ruled Chief Justice Rehnquist, is properly designed to meet the needs of lower income and minority families poorly served by some of the nations worst performing public schools.
The ruling reversed a lower federal courts decision that the use of public money for religious school tuition violates the constitutional separation of church and state. As the New York Times accurately reported the next day, the decision moves the debate out of constitutional law and into policy and politics, ensuring that school vouchers will be a subject of contention from Congress to statehouses to the presidential campaign trail for years to come.
Rehnquists ruling received predictable support from conservative black Justice Clarence Thomas, an opponent of affirmative action and other programs meant to level the playing field for African Americans. As always, Thomas behaved strictly in line with his original job description by providing the requisite illusion of black approval for anti-black policy.
Racist and Rightist Origins
School vouchers are a highly contentious policy issue with particular resonance in the black community. Following the establishment of several large-scale voucher programs in the 1990s, the debate over vouchers has become especially intense. The fundamental controversy surrounding vouchers is whether or not public money should be used to pay for private schools. The debate is focused primarily on disproportionately black and Hispanic urban school systems. While support for vouchers has tended historically to come from conservative whites, a significant portion of the more liberal black community now tells opinion pollsters that they support vouchers.
The history of the voucher movement dates as far back as the 1950s, when vouchers were used as a tool for white families to escape school desegregation as ordered by Brown v. Board of Education (1954). At the same time, conservatives who were ideologically committed to a market-based system of education supported vouchers in the name of school choice. These early voucher advocates influenced conservative political leaders to push for public subsidies to pay for tuition and tuition tax breaks for private school families. During the 1980s, then-President Ronald Reagan spoke consistently in favor of school vouchers
The recently passed federal education bill, titled the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLBA), whose title is blatantly plagiarized from the official slogan of the progressive anti-poverty Childrens Defense Fund, gave vouchers a foot in the federal policy door. It made parents of children in public schools that do not meet performance standards for three straight years eligible to receive $1,500 of federal Title I (poverty) educational funds. Those funds can be used for private or public or transfer to a higher-performing public school.
The Pro-Voucher Argument
Voucher proponents begin by noting the obvious. They open by repeating a well-known fact that the nations urban public education systems serving disproportionately black and Hispanic poor students leave their students woefully disadvantaged in the competition for higher degrees and remunerative employment. Their case for vouchers as the solution really begins with the claim that the threat of free market competition will improve student achievement in public schools as low-performing public schools scramble to improve test scores to prevent a loss of students and public money to private schools. They also claim that students who receive vouchers experience improved performance, claiming that black voucher students standardized test scores are higher than black students who applied for but did not receive vouchers.
Voucher proponents passionately proclaim that all parents should have the right to choose where their child goes to school. It is terribly unfair and essentially racist, they argue, that poor and minority students are forced to attend poorly performing schools. Vouchers, they argue, open the door of opportunity for these victims of the liberal educational establishment and the romanticized ideal of universal public education, permitting some at least to be saved by attaining the chance to attend private schools normally reserved for the middle and upper-class.
Voucher proponents also argue that there is strong public support for vouchers, especially in the black community. They cite a 2001 Gallup Poll of 1,108 respondents where 52 percent of public school parents supported voucher programs. A 1999 poll conducted by the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies, a leading black think-tank, found that the majority of 1,678 respondents favored vouchers. Sixty percent of black respondents, and 72 percent of black respondents earning less than $15,000 per year, supported vouchers. A 1999 Public Agenda survey of 1,200 found that 68 percent of black respondents supported vouchers.
The pro-voucher argument is based on a number of false premises and strategic omissions. What follows are some of the key problems with the case for vouchers and related difficulties with both the theory and the practice of school vouchers to date.
Vouchers Exacerbate Inequities
Public schools fail poor and minority students for a number of reasons, including the nations remarkably inadequate and unequal structure for allocating public school resources between and among schools and school districts. Voucher programs will worsen that structural inequity, draining money from the poorest public schools and providing public subsidies to private schools that tend to privilege middle- and upper-class students over children from economically disadvantaged backgrounds.
Voucher-based competition generates negative outcomes that are not acknowledged by voucher proponents. For example, researchers find that test-score improvements in Florida public schools subject to voucher-based market forces are the result of those schools practice of teaching to the test in specific subject areas. Teaching to the test means that teachers find out in advance the content of standardized tests and then gear their curriculum to the exams. It is the consensus of educational researchers that teaching to the test is an extremely undesirable method for improving student learning. In general, many people feel, the nations obsession with standardized tests is anathema to the goal of creating engaged, critically conscious citizens and all-around thinkers capable of functioning in a democracy.
At the same time, public schools often respond to the demand for improved performance on standardized tests by removing low-performing students from official test-score tabulations. This is achieved by classifying such students as special students: limited-English, bilingual, special education, or learning disabled. Voucher-based competition will compel public school administrators to push more and more low-performing students into special programs, in an attempt to artificially improve test scores.
Real and meaningful school choice exists only when everyone has reasonably good options from which to choose. It doesnt exist when parents and students must select between a good choice and a bad one or when their access to good choices is determined by lottery. All schools, including public schools, should be equally funded institutions with high quality teachers.
Voucher programs promise of a meaningful choice between public and private education for poor public school students is largely an illusion for three basic reasons. First, the public schools are often so inadequately funded and staffed and overcrowded that they cant possibly match the quality of education provided in smaller and more selective private schools. Second, many students in low-performing public schools do not have access to decent private schools in their immediate geographical area. Under all current voucher programs except Floridas, moreover, access to private school vouchers is regulated by lottery. Third, private schools retain the right to deny admission to voucher students for a number of reasons, including low test-scores, religion, gender, and behavioral history.
Leaving aside the important question of whether or not standardized tests offer a valuable measure of student performance and the educational experience, existing research supporting the relationship between student achievement as measured by tests and vouchers is extremely problematic. Research on privately financed voucher programs shows no consistent pattern of improvement across subject, grade, and length of time. In a comprehensive study of a large-scale private school voucher program in New York City during the 1990s, the leading educational think-tank Mathematica Policy Research, Inc. found an at-best weak relationship between vouchers and improved school performance for students receiving vouchers. On standardized tests, Mathematica found, students offered a scholarship generally performed at about the same level as students in the [non-voucher] control group.
Research on publicly financed voucher programs is also problematic. The official research team designated by the Wisconsin state legislature to analyze the Milwaukee voucher program concluded that voucher students performed no differently on standardized tests than Milwaukee Public School students. Students who received vouchers did no better than those who applied, but didnt receive them. Research on the Cleveland voucher program finds that there may have been improvements in science and language, but there was no improvement in other subject areas.
The non-partisan federal Government Accountability Office (GAO) concluded recently that research on the academic benefits of public voucher programs is inconclusive. None of the findings made so far by academic researchers, the GAO concluded, can be considered definitive.
The same 2001 Gallup Poll as the one mentioned above found that only 34 percent of all respondents support vouchers. The Joint Centers 1999 poll found that 63 percent of the general public, 66 percent of school parents, and 60 percent of voucher supporters admit to knowing very little to nothing about vouchers. When queried about their understanding of school vouchers, 80 percent of the general public, 81 percent of parents, and 75 percent of voucher supporters reported that they need to learn more in order to have an intelligent opinion.
Polling questions on vouchers tend to be devoid of context and plagued by abstraction. If the polls were properly constructed to gauge true popular sentiment on vouchers, respondents would be asked if they would support school vouchers over equitably funded and desegregated schools with small class sizes and well-trained, highly motivated teachers. The majority of respondents would certainly say no to such a question. In fact, polling data suggests a great deal more popular support for increasing and equalizing school spending and desegregating schools than for vouchers.
Especially noteworthy in measuring real public opinion on vouchers is the sorry performance of vouchers in the electoral arena. Every one of the eight statewide voucher referendums that have reached state ballots since the 1970s have been defeated. Since 1972, the highest vote percentage received by a pro-voucher referendum is 36this in spite of the fact the voucher proponents have spent significantly more money than voucher opponents to advertise their position.
Subsidizing Private Schools
In Milwaukee, many private schools that accept vouchers charge voucher students significantly more than non-voucher students. In fact, one-third of Milwaukees private voucher schools charge voucher students between 200 and 400 percent of the tuition charged to non-voucher students. The total overcharge of voucher students (and the public schools) is equivalent to 40 percent of the overall expense of the citys voucher program. In Cleveland, moreover, one-third of vouchers go to students already attending private schools.
Vouchers allow the highest performing students with the most educated parents to attend private schools, leaving the most disadvantaged behind. In the long run, students whose parents do not have the financial ability to keep them in voucher programs tend to drop out. Voucher proponents concede this may be the case but then argue that the best and brightest students are the most logical ones to save from the failed public schools. This is fatalistic zero-sum thinking. It would be more appropriate for those who support quality education for poor students to advocate that all students have quality opportunities.
The Supreme Courts decision aside, publicly funded vouchers conflict with the separation of church and state mandated by the United States Constitution. Fully 85 percent of private schools in the U.S. are religious. After removing private schools that are so academically selective and expensive that vouchers dont apply, the percentage is even higher. Government programs that fund religious schools even by mere default (reflecting the absence of non-religious schools in many locales) violate the First Amendment. Public funding, either direct (a government check to the school) or indirect (a government check to the parents), for religious schools is unconstitutional. As Supreme Court Justice David Souter noted in his dissent to the June 26 decision: In the city of Cleveland the overwhelming proportion of large appropriations for voucher money must be spent on religious schools if it is to be spent at all. The money will thus pay for eligible students instruction not only in secular subjects but in religion as well, in schools that can fairly be characterized as founded to teach religious doctrine and to imbue teaching in all subjects with a religious dimension. Public tax money will pay at a systemic level for teaching the covenant with Israel and Mosaic law in Jewish schools, the primacy of the Apostle Peter and the Papacy in Catholic schools, the truth of reformed Christianity in Protestant schools, and the revelation of the Prophet in Muslim schools, to speak only of major religious groupings in the republic.
Vouchers generally provide insufficient funding for poor students to attend private schools. The average voucher, both public and private, to date is worth between $1,500 and $2,000; the voucher ceiling in Clevelands plan is on the higher end of that range. Private school tuition, especially at the high school level, costs considerably more. Elite Chicago private schools like Francis Parker, the University of Chicago Lab School, and the Latin School cost as much as $14,000. The low level of most existing vouchers prevents poor students from attending most private schools.
The tax breaks offered by the Bush administration through education accounts are in essence public-private educational subsidies for the middle class. To benefit from this tax policy, families have to contribute money to an education IRA. Poor families living below the poverty cannot contribute the federal maximum of $2,000 a year to an account to pay for their childrens future private school education.
Private Schools rigidly control whom they accept for admission and limit the pool of eligible students who use vouchers. While proponents argue that voucher programs contain measures to prevent discrimination, private schools can and do turn away students with learning disabilities, limited English, or behavioral problems. In Florida, 93 percent of the private schools will not accept students with vouchers. Some Milwaukee schools have turned away all students with vouchers, while others have turned away students based on ability, gender, and religion. Many private schools make parental involvement and other special investments of time and effort a prerequisite to admission. The typical inner-city single mother who works one or more jobs, often with a considerable commute, cannot meet such requirements. At the same time, only students with quality private schools in their community would even be in geographical position to benefit from voucher programs. The poorest urban communities, not to mention virtually all rural areas, would have considerably less access to such schools.
There is virtually no accountability in voucher programs. Leaving aside the debate over the virtues of testing, private schools are not required to test students, release test data, provide services for special education or learning-disabled students, and even to hire certified teachers. They are also not required to respect constitutional protections such as free speech, due process, or equal protection, and do not have to obey laws prohibiting discrimination on the basis of sex, sexual orientation, marital status, or pregnancy. Milwaukee dropped the requirement to monitor the achievement of voucher students in 1995.
The voucher debate diverts attention from fundamental public school reform topics that if properly addressed would make it seem ridiculous for anyone to privatize education. School vouchers would be an insignificant topic if the public school system was truly public and therefore structured in such a way that all students received adequate and equitable funding, small classes, high quality teachers, and appropriate facilities simply by virtue of their status as citizens-to-be in a virtuous commonwealth. As countless studies reveal, truly public education in the United States is fundamentally challenged by local school districts extreme reliance on local private property taxes to pay for basic operating expenditures. This reliance creates extraordinary, savage school funding disparities that reflect and reproduce Americas deep and related patterns of hyper-segregation by race, class, residence, and private wealth and power. Children in predominantly white and affluent property-rich districts attend schools with significantly higher per-pupil expenditures and far superior teachers, programs, and facilities compared with those experienced by inner city students most in need of extra public monies.
Thanks to the nations profoundly regressive school funding formula, one of the major problems with the nations not-so public school system is the extent to which it mirrors and exacerbates existing private inequalities in American society. Like so much of the public sector activity that the ideological shock troops of the right and their business class sponsors love to label as tax and spend liberalism and even socialism, the actually existing public school system in America really works largely to preserve and expand private privilege.
Race is strongly correlated with and linked to those inequalities. The Harvard Civil Rights Project finds that 70 percent of black K-12 students attended predominantly minority schools at the end of the 20th century, compared with 63 percent in 1980. U.S. schools are actually re-segregating in part because federal courts have ended strong desegregation plans adopted after the landmark 1954 Brown v. Board of Education decision. One of the most disturbing rulings by the federal judiciary invalidates school desegregation across city-suburban lines, protecting the special advantage favored by predominantly white property-rich school districts.
Beyond diverting attention from public schools funding needs and desegregation issues, public school voucher programs like Clevelands divert funds from public schools, thereby exacerbating precisely the public school crisis that gives so much false progressive legitimacy to the voucher movement in the first place.
With a horrifying new stamp of approval from the most aristocratic branch of the worlds most powerful government, conservatives are using vouchers to encourage disadvantaged people to accept the tragically wrong notion that free market forces are the only way out of the crisis of urban education. Black and Hispanic community and civil rights leaders, social justice activists, and the citizenry in general must not be fooled. At the same time, in opposing vouchers, they should advocate for the democratic restructuring of the school finance system and for meaningful school desegregation. They should push for other reforms, including a reduction of the nations dysfunctional minority-bashing addiction to standardized tests and the development of non-totalitarian teaching methods and course materials that inspire critical thinking and passionate public engagement of the sort that is essential to a functioning democracy. Unlike school vouchers, equitably funded and integrated public schools with small classes, appropriate academic curriculums, and highly trained teachers will expand opportunity for the disadvantaged students in whose name voucher proponents wrap their regressive, falsely progressive project. Z
Paul Street is vice president for Research and Planning and Dennis Kass is Education Research Specialist at the Chicago Urban League.