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Published in Print: September 15, 1999, as NRC Report Calls For Voucher Experiment

NRC Report Calls For Voucher Experiment

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The National Research Council has proposed a "large and ambitious" research experiment with vouchers to determine whether the controversial private-school-choice programs might benefit students.

The suggestion for a multidistrict, 10-year voucher experiment is contained in a report on school finance issued late last week by the NRC, an independent, federally financed arm of the National Academy of Sciences.

For More Information

"Making Money Matter: Financing America's Schools," can be ordered from the National Academy Press, 2101 Constitution Ave., N.W., Washington, D.C. 20418; (800) 624-6242.

It says a large-scale voucher study would help determine whether giving public school students vouchers to pay for tuition at private schools can improve achievement, especially for students in poor, urban areas.

The study was commissioned by the U.S. Department of Education and written by the NRC's committee on education finance, a group of 18 experts in education.

The report does not say who might conduct such a study or when it might be done. The Clinton administration is firmly opposed to school voucher programs, which have been instituted in Milwaukee, Cleveland, and, most recently, Florida.

The NRC report says such an experiment should also examine the effects of vouchers on students who remain behind in regular public schools. It could do that by examining whether a voucher program would drain finances from regular schools and whether vouchers would increase the divide between students of different races or socioeconomic backgrounds.

Lack of Data

The recommendations for a voucher experiment are part of a broad discussion in the report on the need to rethink education funding in the United States, with specific attention to the adequacy of funding. It sets out three broad goals for federal, state, and local education finance systems:

  • Improving student achievement while using resources more efficiently;
  • Reducing differences in achievement between students from different backgrounds; and
  • Raising revenue fairly and efficiently.

The group put forth the voucher proposal because of the "paucity of empirical data, the growing popularity of the [voucher] movement, and the growing debate," Edmund W. Gordon, a member of the NRC committee that wrote the report, said in an interview last week.

"The committee was concerned that vouchers ... have emerged as an important question in school finance, while most of the debate is informed by polemic and people's ideology," added Mr. Gordon, a professor emeritus of psychology at Yale University.

While some members of Congress and more and more local and state governments explore the idea of school vouchers, he said, "there's not sufficient empirical data" for them to make informed decisions.

"Charter schools and school vouchers are very much on the policy agenda," added Helen F. Ladd, a professor of public policy at Duke University in Durham, N.C. and a co-chair of the NRC committee.

"We looked carefully at all the existing research," she said, "and the thing that emerges quite clearly is we don't know very much."

Ms. Ladd said the committee's role is advisory--it merely recommended such an experiment to the NRC, the National Academy of Sciences, and governmental bodies. Based on that recommendation, an independent, outside research group may choose to do the experiment using the committee's recommendations.

With the completion of the report, the finance panel will disband, Ms. Ladd said.

Vol. 19, Issue 2, Page 3

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