Published Online: April 23, 1997


Vouchers: A Questionable Answer To an Unasked Question

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It is not a time for school reformers to celebrate private victory gardens for a selected few, when what is needed is an amber-waves-of-grain commitment to serve all students in our public schools.

Providing vouchers to private and parochial students has been offered as the answer to reforming public education--ah, but what was the question? Some public officials and policy gurus are advancing vouchers as the "silver bullet" to improve America's public schools. Unfortunately, they have not paused to clearly frame the central question underlying the problem they seek to resolve, nor have they considered other questions which emerge as a result of their rush to judgment.

As is often the case in the educational reform policy arena, there is a serious disconnect between the issues which need to be addressed and the solutions put forth. In effect, answers are provided to questions which have not been asked, and questions which beg a reply are dismissed or disregarded.

To those who support public funds' being used to supply vouchers for students to attend private and parochial schools, the following 10 questions (and answers) are offered for consideration:

(1) What impact will vouchers have on reforming public education? Almost no impact. The reality is that there are 46 million students currently enrolled in America's public elementary and secondary schools. Private and parochial schools accommodate about 6 million students. A simple mathematical exercise will immediately point out that the numbers don't work. A voucher system, regardless of the amount of money provided, can only accommodate a minimal number of public school students. To think of vouchers as a credible solution to the problems of public education is to disregard most of America's students. This is further exacerbated by the fact that K-12 enrollment in public schools is projected to increase in each of the next 10 years. By 2006, we will have an additional 3 million students attending public schools.

Meaningful and comprehensive school improvement can only be achieved when a significant majority of students experience its effect. Any lesser attempt, such as vouchers, represents "tinkering" on the fringe of reform, offering no resolution to the central question, "How do we improve education for all of America's public schoolchildren?" It is not a time for school reformers to celebrate private victory gardens for a selected few, when what is needed is an amber-waves-of-grain commitment to serve all students in our public schools.

(2) What criteria will be used in admitting voucher students? A large majority of private and parochial schools use various test and/or admissions procedures in selecting students. These practices, if continued under a publicly funded voucher system, would constitute an unfair and unjust situation. Public schools accept all children, regardless of academic readiness, race, socioeconomic status, limited English proficiency, or special education needs. Therein lies the power of the public system of education--it is truly public.

Over the years, the public education system in this country has fought some long, hard battles to ensure educational equity for student populations that are often ignored and discriminated against. Are private and parochial schools ready to make the same commitment to educating all students? A voucher system that allows public funds to be used for private and parochial schools should never be allowed to discriminate against special-needs students.

(3) Could private and parochial schools return voucher students to the public schools? If private and parochial schools can send students back to public schools because they do not meet academic standards, become discipline problems, or refuse to pray a certain way, they are playing by a different set of rules than are the public schools.

When public school students come to school with challenging problems, the public schools cannot--nor should they--refuse to educate these students. The public schools must try harder. A reasonable question which voucher proponents should be required to address is: "Are private and parochial schools ready to agree that once voucher students are accepted, they have a right to stay--regardless of academic achievement or behavioral problems or costly special needs?"

(4) What will be the quality and orientation of new "voucher driven" private schools? If voucher money does become available, it is reasonable to expect that there will be a rush to develop new private schools and academies. But at what cost and at what risk will these schools operate? It is imperative to understand that these new private ventures will operate outside the scope of any public authority or without public accountability. They will be free to develop their own programs and curricula and to hire their own staff. In effect, public funds could be used to support schools sponsored by extremists or others with questionable societal motives.

When public school students come to school with challenging problems, the public schools cannot—nor should they—refuse to educate these students.

Conceivably, there could be no public safeguards regarding the competencies of the staff or any requirement for background checks for their employees, including a check for criminal records. There would also be little, if any, accountability to the public for the expenditure of funds. Note that within the past year, three of 17 schools in the Milwaukee voucher school program closed because of financial problems, and two of these schools' directors face fraud charges.

(5) Why do we think vouchers will help improve the achievement of public school students? As of this moment, there is no credible evidence that public school students participating in voucher programs are achieving at higher levels than those in public schools. A recent evaluation duel in Milwaukee showed two highly respected assessment experts producing evaluation reports on the same voucher system with very different findings. One researcher concluded that voucher students perform at slightly higher levels than do public school students while the other found no evidence to support this claim.

(6) Won't the spirit of competition cause public schools to improve? Proponents of vouchers say that public schools become more competitive and more accountable operating within a voucher system that allows students the option to leave, but do we know this to be true? The reality is that for every public school student who leaves, districts lose significant dollars that are never replaced. It seems illogical to suggest that school districts, especially urban districts already plagued with significant fiscal problems, will improve as public education funds are removed.

Many people also say that vouchers will inject necessary and healthy competition into the public education system. As noted before, a voucher system will likely spur the creation of many new private schools and academies. These new education ventures will likely represent the best and worst of the American entrepreneurial spirit. Some school plans will be carefully designed and implemented, using the latest education research and attracting the best teachers and staff. Others will be fly-by-night, looking to make a quick profit by capitalizing on people's desperation and misfortune. What becomes of the students whose education is put on hold when a new school venture fails?

(7) What impact will vouchers have on the mission of private and parochial schools? Most likely, the initial reaction of private and parochial schools to vouchers would be positive: more students and more fiscal resources. After the euphoria passes, however, these schools will need to pause and think about what is on the horizon. It can be predicted that over time, as more public dollars are spent to support voucher students, there will be increased pressure for greater public scrutiny and accountability for the public expenditures. These schools will likely have to be involved with state teacher-certification requirements, state-required testing programs and course offerings, special education compliance, and local and/or state audit reviews.

One cannot imagine a long-term scenario whereby governmental bodies would simply write checks, without exercising their fiduciary, program, and equity responsibilities. Private and parochial schools are an important part of the heritage and future of American education. Slowly but surely, vouchers would force these schools to become less private and less parochial.

(8) Will voucher monies be restricted to new students and their families? It would be logical to expect that the answer is no. Private and parochial schools would be treating the parents of presently enrolled students unfairly if they did not allow them to use the newfound public windfall. This outcome is evident in the Cleveland voucher system, in which 27 percent of the 1,864 students enrolled in the program were already in private schools.

A large percentage of voucher funds could be used to underwrite tuition costs for parents who had already made a decision and fiscal commitment to enroll their children in private and parochial schools. If this is the case, the amount of money available for new students to exercise the voucher option is proportionately reduced. This will not be a problem for the private and parochial schools because they will be in position to use public dollars to underwrite their present operating costs.

(9) Why is it considered a problem to provide public funds to private and parochial schools when public funds are regularly used to provide support to colleges and universities? This represents an apples-and-oranges comparison. All states have statutes which require that a free and public education be provided for each child. State laws also require that children, generally between the ages of 7 and 16, attend school. The operative words here are free, public, and required, and the mandate is a commitment to access and equity in elementary and secondary education.

In effect, public dollars must be provided to ensure that all American children have access to what translates into a quality K-12 education. There is no constitutional mandate or state statute that provides free public access to postsecondary education--whether it is public, private, or parochial. Also, public elementary and secondary schools have no admission fees or costs. Institutions of higher education charge substantial tuition--with the highest costs generally found at the private and parochial institutions.

(10) What are the reform alternatives to a voucher-driven system? If our national commitment is to educate all children to high standards, then our school reform efforts must include strategies and initiatives that are comprehensive and built upon solid research. State education agencies and local school districts are now adopting many innovative strategies within the public school system to achieve these goals.

To think of vouchers as a credible solution to problems of public education is to disregard most of America's students.

Recent reform efforts that show great promise for all students include establishing high academic standards; implementing rigorous tests to monitor student progress; aligning curriculum and instruction with established standards and assessments; holding educators and school board members accountable for improved student achievement; increasing parental involvement; determining consequences for both successful and failing schools; improving the preparation, induction, and career opportunities for teachers along with salary increases; ensuring high-quality preschool and early-childhood education; and financing the poorer school districts in a more equitable manner.

Moreover, public-school-choice models are important components of a comprehensive school reform agenda. Magnet schools, charter schools, schools within schools, and districtwide controlled public school choice represent examples of viable alternatives within the public system for students and parents. These schools operate within the public domain and are the responsibility of local school boards. In effect, they operate under the jurisdiction of legally constituted public bodies, which are accountable for their fiscal and academic performance. This public system also ensures that where public school models are in place, all students have an equal opportunity to participate.

In summary, vouchers lead us away from the basic American tradition of a free, quality public education for every student and undermine the kind of comprehensive, systemic school reform that is working in many parts of the country right now. Offering silver-bullet solutions for small groups of students is not reform. We need to improve our public education system as a whole for all students.

We can only hope that as the voucher debate intensifies, legislators and policymakers will pause and bring into clear focus what the real essence of public school reform demands, and carefully assess and analyze why a voucher-driven system leads us away from our desired goals. Such an understanding is only possible if the questions are asked before the answers are provided. Please ask.

Gerald Tirozzi, a former state commissioner of education, is the assistant U.S. secretary of education for elementary and secondary education, U.S. Department of Education, Washington.

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Web Resources
  • Read more about Assistant Secretary Gerald Tirozzi from the U.S. Department of Education Web page.
  • Point Five of President Clinton's 10-point plan for education outlines his goals for expanding school choice and charter schools.
  • Public Schools: Make Them Private. In this 1995 opinion piece, Milton Friedman writes that our elementary and secondary educational system needs to be radically restructured. "Such a reconstruction can be achieved only by privatizing a major segment of the educational system--i.e., by enabling a private, for-profit industry to develop that will provide a wide variety of learning opportunities and offer effective competition to public schools."

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