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Moe Book Examines Privately Funded Vouchers

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Privately financed school-voucher programs, which began in the early 1990s as a "charitable experiment in education choice," have grown into a national movement, a Stanford University political scientist concludes in a new book.

Low-income parents who enroll their children in those programs are very satisfied with the schools they choose, the book says. Moreover, parents appear to be choosing private schools for the right reasons, citing educational quality as their primary criterion.

The book, titled Private Vouchers, is edited by Terry M. Moe, a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution on War, Revolution, and Peace at the university in Stanford, Calif. Mr. Moe brought national attention to the school-choice issue in 1990 with Politics, Markets, and America's Schools, a book he wrote with Brookings Institution scholar John E. Chubb.

Mr. Moe said his new book sheds some fresh light on the hotly debated question of whether giving parents more choice of schools for their children can improve schools in the long run.

While headlines have focused on publicly financed efforts like the Milwaukee program that gives poor parents vouchers to pay for private schools, an entire crop of privately supported programs has sprouted across the country. All of these programs are geared to poor families, and most of them have been launched since 1991.

Mr. Moe says that foundations have created 17 private-school-voucher programs serving a total of 6,500 children.

In his book, which is published by the Hoover Institution Press, he has collected evaluations of four of the largest: Partners Advancing Values in Education (PAVE) in Milwaukee; the Children's Educational Opportunity (CEO) Foundation in San Antonio; Indianapolis' Educational Choice Charitable Trust, otherwise known as the Golden Rule program; and the long-established Student-Sponsor Program in New York City.

What the studies found was that, given the opportunity, low-income parents responded enthusiastically to private-school-voucher programs, according to Mr. Moe. In all of the programs studied, demand for the vouchers far exceeded availability. And yet, all the program participants found slots in private schools, contrary to predictions that they would be turned away.

Overwhelmingly, parents in the programs also said they were highly satisfied with their children's new schools.

"I think it's what you should expect with vouchers," Mr. Moe said. "When you let people choose, they're happier."

Drawbacks and Concerns

On the downside, the studies, like others before them, also suggest that choice programs could have a potential skimming effect, creaming off the most advantaged of the disadvantaged.

In three of the four programs, the parents who took part were much better educated than other low-income parents with children in public schools, and they tended to have higher expectations for their children. In San Antonio, for example, 55 percent of the mothers in the program had at least some college education, whereas only 19 percent of the public school mothers had that much schooling.

"The way to deal with this is to design programs properly," Mr. Moe said. Some of the programs, he pointed out, advertised their availability through private schools and churches and accepted applicants on a first-come, first-served basis. "Obviously, the way to do it is to do everything you can to get the word out," he said.

The book offers limited data on the key question of whether participating in a school-choice program can improve student achievement. In Milwaukee's PAVE program, students outperformed both low-income public school students and students in Milwaukee's publicly funded choice program on a standardized test of mathematics and reading. At least in the first year of operation, though, nearly half the students who came to the program had already been enrolled in private schools. Also, students in the New York program had higher Scholastic Assessment Test scores than their public school counterparts.

"If vouchers are going to have an effect on achievement, that will be borne out over a longer period of time," Mr. Moe said. "I think parental satisfaction is a very good measure of what's going on out there now."

Like Mr. Moe's first book, Private Vouchers has drawn both praise and criticism.

"This puts on the table a lot of evidence about programs we've known nothing about," said Bruce Fuller, who, with his colleagues Richard Elmore and Gary Orfield at the Harvard University graduate school of education, published a more critical collection of studies on choice programs last year. (See Education Week, Nov. 8, 1995.)

"I think Terry has shown a lot of intellectual honesty by recognizing that these programs can have grossly unequal effects," Mr. Fuller said.

But Mr. Fuller also faulted some of the student-achievement analyses for failing to account for students' prior academic achievement.

"The other concern I have," he added, "is how do you ever go to scale with these things? Will the private sector show the commitment to sustain these experiments?"

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