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Substituting the Privilege of Choice for the Right to Equality

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Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani of New York has been making national news, and may have created an irreparable rift with the city's public schools chancellor, Rudolph F. Crew, with his campaign to offer vouchers to New York City students. The mayor's often-repeated promise, quoted by this newspaper, has been to "give poorer parents the same opportunity to make choices about their children's education that the richest and most affluent parents in New York City have." ("Giuliani Proposes a Voucher Program for New York," Jan. 27, 1999.)

As New Yorkers who spend our days in public schools, both in our city and across the country, we are all too aware that many schools are not properly serving their students. However, Mayor Giuliani's voucher campaign has made us reconsider the promises embedded in vouchers, and prompted us to examine more carefully why we see them as dangerous.

Using the rhetoric of equal educational opportunity, voucher advocates generally propose them as poor children's tickets out of failing public schools. What Mr. Giuliani and other voucher proponents make less clear is where vouchers will take these students, and who will be left behind.

Mayor Giuliani has offered two proposals. The first called for spending $12 million in public money over three years, or $4 million annually, to help students attend private schools, including religious schools. The second, substantially more fiscally ambitious, suggested that $7,000 in tuition would be given to as many as 3,000 students--an expenditure of $21 million annually. In a city that spent over $9 billion on public schooling in 1998, even the latter is a relatively modest sum. However, of New York City's 1.1 million students, nearly 70 percent receive free or reduced-price lunches. That is, with more than 700,000 low-income students, the first proposal would help 0.29 percent and the second 0.15 percent, annually. For more than 99 percent of the low-income students in New York City's public schools, no educational airlift would be available.

S ince many public schools in New York and other large cities are often seen as educational "dead zones" by both parents and educators, we cannot discount the possibility of rescuing even 3,000 students. Taking seriously Mr. Giuliani's promise to offer poor parents the same opportunities as "the richest and most affluent parents," we investigated what $7,000 would buy. At Brearly, Friends, Dalton, and Spence--schools attended by the children of New York City's affluent families--tuition ranges between $15,000 and $19,000 a year, depending on the grade level. Clearly, even a $7,000 voucher would not provide even half the tuition needed to attend these schools. Information from the Roman Catholic archdiocese yielded tuition at $3,000 for elementary schools and $4,500 for secondary schools, and we discovered a small number of independent schools in African-American neighborhoods with tuitions of around $3,500. Thus, New York City's Catholic schools would obviously be the largest beneficiaries of vouchers, along with some small, faith-affiliated schools, and a number of for-profit schools that would open in the city to make money on the $7,000 vouchers.

Nevertheless, when Mr. Giuliani speaks of giving New York City's poor parents the same choice as rich parents, he is focusing on the ability to choose, not on the schools that are available to be chosen. Though the educational experiences of voucher students might well be improved, their new private schools would not offer them the same opportunities as "the richest and most affluent."

Another wrinkle: Voucher programs claim to give parents a choice; in reality, they give parents the option to be chosen by a private school. Nonsectarian private and Catholic schools have always kept a firm hand on both admissions and exits: Academic entrance requirements, interviews, class-size limits, changes in tuition, and expulsions are established by private schools to determine who enters and remains. It is the fact that these schools choose their students that helps them become high-performing. Clearly, this is not the kind of choice that assists those students who have been failed by public schools and whose skills are lacking.

Finally, since Catholic schools are the most likely to rescue public school students, we thought it relevant to know their current capacity. New York City has a total of 183 Catholic elementary and secondary schools, offering 76,500 seats. That is, if these schools turned away their entire current student population, they could only accept one out of every 10 low-income students currently in the city's public schools. We should also note that, in a city that has relied on neighborhood schools at the elementary level and a rich subway network for secondary students, transportation would for the first time become an added educational cost for the New York City system. In any case, even with a fully expanded voucher program, nine out of 10 low-income students would be left without a private school choice.

S ince no voucher program will--at least in the near future--serve all public school students, we are left with what happens to the students and schools that are left behind, and with the question of systemic reform. Certainly, we have seen evidence of anxiety and anger in the districts that have been faced with vouchers. In New York City, the threat of vouchers, which more recently has been accompanied by the mayor's judgment that "the whole [public school] system should be blown up," may have been the last straw for Chancellor Crew. For a school system that has suffered from a revolving door of chancellors, this would be a disaster.

Beyond the demoralization that voucher programs provoke in already besieged urban systems, public school administrators in Milwaukee, Indianapolis, the Edgewood district in San Antonio, and other cities complain about the fiscal and planning difficulties created by the withdrawal of students. Because schools operate on economies of scale, assistant principals, counselors, and other staff positions allotted by multiples of students are often the first to be cut.

Vouchers will leave the most troubled schools that much more decimated—in their student bodies, and in already scarce public money.

Voucher programs are characteristically being offered in cities whose educational spending is already below that of surrounding suburban districts. These are cities struggling to find and maintain well-prepared teachers amidst a constant brain drain to neighboring, higher-spending districts. New York City's per-pupil spending of just over $8,000 cannot buy teachers whose salaries compete with those in Scarsdale where the per-pupil spending is over $13,000, or White Plains, where it is over $16,500. Starting salaries for New York City principals are about $20,000 lower than in these and other suburbs. Rather than helping resource-poor systems, vouchers will further drain the resources from these low-spending school systems.

Although not everything in a school can be attributed to resources, our recently completed two-year study of New York state's Schools Under Registration Review, or SURR--those schools identified by the state for unacceptable performance--revealed systematic differences between low-performing and high-performing schools. In New York City, where data are most complete, schools identified as SURR serve high percentages of low-income students of color and immigrant students. These schools have three times as many unlicensed teachers, almost twice as many teachers without advanced degrees, and a third more teachers with less than five years' experience than high-performing schools. Moreover, similar differences in teacher preparation and quality exist between high-poverty districts and districts serving some middle-class students.

These grave and systemic problems in equity, both within New York City and between the city and its suburbs are not unique. Nor will they be solved by airlifting a small number of students out of public schools. Instead, vouchers in New York City and elsewhere will leave the most troubled schools that much more decimated--in their student body, and in already scarce public money.

Over the past decade, many of us have become too cynical to stand up for the democratic ideal deeply embedded in public schools: that they admit all students, whatever their skills and needs. This right of access, the cornerstone of any public system, is protected by law and can be limited only after the student has received due process. By contrast, under voucher programs, students may knock on the school door with their "scholarships" in hand, but it is still up to the school to determine whether or not they will be admitted.

In most states, state law also further establishes that students must be provided with a "thorough and efficient" or "minimal quality" education. This has been the Achilles heel of public schools. With notable exceptions, low-income students and students of color have been denied an adequate education by public schooling. Yet over the decades, despite vouchers and privatization, many low-income parents have recognized that the public schools in their communities are their only real educational option, and that they must change these schools if their children are to have access to the education they deserve. As a result of struggles by these parents and communities, public schools have been forced to move inch by inch closer toward giving all students an "equal educational opportunity."

The systems being created to identify and improve low-performing schools across the country are part of that process. Students who face a school registrar with their vouchers have no right to argue that a school's relatively low tuition is not buying as much as a nearby school with more money to spend; they can only take their voucher elsewhere. By contrast, the ideal of educational equality provides a standard against which to measure ourselves, as we continue to improve an ever-imperfect system. This right to fight for equality may be the most precious dimension of the public education system.

Finally, although democracy has never been efficient and easy, public schools provide a civic space in which to argue fractious issues. Vouchers promise a way out of these civic arguments by allowing students to attend schools that seem compatible with their specific values and beliefs. By contrast, through the pressures of parents and communities, public schools have always been pushed to represent a variety of values and cultures. It is this struggle that enables us to map what we value in a society--both by the way we provide resources for our schools and by what and how we teach our children.

Carol Ascher is a senior research scientist at the Institute for Education and Social Policy at New York University in New York City. Richard Gray is the senior program director for the institute's community-involvement program.

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