School Vouchers--A Middle View

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Both proponents and opponents of school vouchers see the issue as a computer does: up/down, yes/no. See, for instance, "School Vouchers, Pro and Con," in the Commentary section of the July 10, 1996, issue of Education Week. How about the possibility that vouchers are desirable and valid in some school districts (those that fall below even minimum standards in educating their students), and undesirable and unconstitutional in others (where the need for extraordinary measures is not as great and the support afforded to religions is greater)?

To my eyes, this middle view of vouchers is the correct one. They are good public policy and sound legally in failing school districts, but only in such districts. If extended to all schoolchildren, they are on balance harmful, and most likely will be declared unconstitutional when challenged.

To see the merit of this middle position, consider first the appalling ineffectiveness of public education in most inner city areas in our country today. My home city, Cleveland, is unique in the gravity of its school-finance problems, but is typical of most cities, which have lost most of their middle class, in its educational results.

The superintendent of schools presented a report in November 1995 that described the educational outcomes for the class that entered Cleveland high schools in August 1990 and should have graduated in June 1994. Forty-six percent dropped out; 21 percent stayed in school but failed to graduate because they either failed the 9th-grade Ohio proficiency test, flunked too many courses, fell below the minimum attendance standard, or were expelled; 16 percent graduated without taking the 12th-grade proficiency test; 10 percent took that test and failed it. Only 7 percent graduated having passed the 12th-grade state test.

Can vouchers help produce better results in the inner cities? I am persuaded that they can.

My personal experience as a teacher in grades 4-6 in Cleveland schools taught me that magnet schools, whether or not they have selective admissions policies, are more successful than schools to which students are assigned. This experience is consistent with reports from other observers (for an example, see Seymour Fliegel's 1993 book, Miracle in East Harlem).

The reason magnet schools succeed, probably, is that they are more successful than neighborhood schools in overcoming the anti-academic peer pressure which Lawrence Steinberg has persuasively asserted in Beyond the Classroom is the root cause of low academic achievement in American schools. Given the deplorable level of education in assigned inner city schools, I therefore support choice as an urban education policy, whether it is achieved by voucher schools, charter schools, magnet schools, or choice among schools differentiated by real site-based management--or in all four ways at the same time.

I note the concern, recently effectively advanced in Who Chooses? Who Loses?, edited by Bruce Fuller and Richard F. Elmore, that students remaining in the non-choice schools suffer educational losses as great as the gains obtained by those who make the choice. I respond that it is intolerable to deny better education to inner city children with the gumption to seek it, in order to help others who are less determined to escape the ghetto. Moreover, the gains and the losses are closely related to the degree of involvement that parents have in their children's education, and providing real choices is the best tool we have to increase the number of involved parents and the intensity of their involvement. Choice is also one of our best techniques to expand the number of students who are actively engaged in their own education.

There are at least three reasons why states should seriously consider vouchers for students in failing school districts.

While charters, magnets, and differentiated site-based management are less risky educational policies than vouchers to church-related private schools, there are at least three reasons why failing-district vouchers should be included in the strategy of a state serious about improving its failing districts.

The first is practical. Magnet schools and differentiated site-based management are within the power of most boards of education; but not all superintendents and board members are willing to let go of the control they now exercise. Charters and vouchers may be the only alternatives in many districts. In some districts (including Cleveland, under Ohio's proposed charter law), the funding provided by the state is so niggardly that few charters will be born. Nearly everywhere, however, there are church-affiliated or independent private schools already in existence, employing teachers paid less than public school scales, which are eager to accept additional students for even the small subsidy offered. Vouchers may, as a practical matter, be the only choice game in town.

And if Lawrence Steinberg is correct in his assertion that the principal reason for mediocre performance in American secondary schools is the anti-learning attitude of most of the students, the religious affiliation of many of the schools that would accept vouchers may be an effective corrective. Mr. Steinberg did not examine parochial schools, but others have, most notably James S. Coleman and Thomas Hoffer in Public and Private High Schools: The Impact of Communities.

The state's monopoly on tax-supported elementary and secondary education is acceptable where the schools of a district are reasonably effective. Where they are failing, they need the competition that private schools would bring. When an important public service is clearly not working tolerably for a substantial group of people despite decades of effort, a heavy burden should be imposed on those who oppose competition that might provide better service.

Arguments against a vouchers-for-all solution to our educational problems might begin with an examination of the growing multicultural character of this country. Unlike earlier historical periods of rapid immigration, when the new immigrants blended relatively easily with the indigenous population, today's newcomers are distinguishable by the color of their skin or their Hispanic language and culture from the still more numerous English-speaking whites. Today, neither the newcomers, nor the African-American and Hispanic populations, nor the rest of American society, have much interest in the "melting pot" analogy that formerly reflected our assimilation objectives. Now, "mutual respect for differing cultures" is a better description of our collective goal.

Respecting differences, however, is not the same thing as encouraging separateness. Most Americans regret the racial separateness of neighborhoods, even as they save to buy a home in a district where they will feel comfortable, and in whose schools they would like their children to be educated. Most of us, visiting a college dining hall, wish that the African-American students were dispersed, and not gathered together at a few tables. Most of us think universities err when they capitulate to various student groups' demands and set aside dormitories for the exclusive use of one ethnic or racial group.

More than any other large, developed country in the world, the United States is home to many peoples. We must live with each other. While we have to accept the fact that most people feel comfortable in the company of those of a similar culture, we also must seek every opportunity to encourage cultures to know and appreciate one another.

Our public school system is one of our most important such opportunities. My four years of teaching in Cleveland schools convinced me that mixing African-American, white, and on occasion Hispanic and Asian students in each classroom has been, whatever other problems it created, a human-relations success. Friendships across racial lines, I found, were common. Fights within ethnic groups occurred much more often than fights between them. Familiarity does breed tolerance.

If a voucher program were utilized by only a few families, and only in failing districts, it would not present much of a risk to the cultural unity of the United States. I consider it inevitable, however, that vouchers-for-all would spawn a plethora of religious and ethnic schools. As each religious or ethnic group observed other groups creating such schools and withdrawing children from the public schools, pressure on the holdout groups to follow suit would intensify. Group pressure on families to support the group's school by enrolling their children would be compelling.

If a voucher program were utilized by only a few families, and only in failing districts, it would not present much of a risk to the cultural unity of the United States.

Those who point to the now quite substantial diversification in the student bodies of independent and even some parochial schools as evidence of the character of a vouchers-for-all world are misreading their tea leaves. Vouchers-for-all would be another force, comparable in strength to neighborhoods, segregating the American people into racial, ethnic, and religious tribes.

Outside of the districts with high rates of educational failure, we now have the church-state balance in schooling about right. Parents who feel strongly enough that the public schools available to their children are not what they want can pay the charges of private schools not already paid by the taxpayer. True, some parents cannot pay the tuition, and many feel they should save their funds to help with the inescapable costs of the higher education of their children. They can, however, provide for their children a substitute for whatever religious or moral education they feel is lacking in the public schools by enrolling them in after-school, weekend, or summer church-related programs.

A second hazard to a vouchers-for-all plan is its tendency to accentuate economic and academic-ability stratification. If schools accepting voucher students were permitted to charge tuition in addition to the voucher, it would be hard to avoid high-cost schools for rich children, middle-cost schools for middle-class children, and underfunded public schools for poor children. If supplementary tuition were prohibited, transportation costs could have a similar stratifying effect. Rarely do I see a proponent of vouchers advocate a prohibition of tuition or requirements for a transportation subsidy and selection of students by lot rather than by exam. It would be difficult to design a vouchers-for-all program with those three safeguards that would not entail a degree of government supervision which voucher proponents want to avoid, and which the U.S. Constitution may not allow.

Governments in this country are forbidden by the First Amendment to the Constitution from encouraging an "establishment of religion." The prohibition is not limited to a single established church, but extends to "establishing" all religions, or any.

A limited voucher plan might even be constitutional.

Would failing-district vouchers be constitutional? A plan limited to failing school districts has as its purpose and principal effect not the encouragement of religious denominations, but the resolution of a critical educational problem. Sustaining such a voucher plan requires only a small extension of the 1993 and 1986 U.S. Supreme Court decisions in Zobrest v. Catalina Foothills School District and Witters v. Washington Department of Services for the Blind. In Zobrest, the state provided an interpreter to a deaf student in a Catholic school. In Witters, the state provided tuition support for a blind student in a Christian college. In both cases, the high court upheld the programs because they provided benefits to the deaf and the blind, and only indirectly to religion. In the same way, a failing-district voucher program is constitutional because it provides benefits to students currently unable to receive an adequate education, and only incidentally supports religion.

Would vouchers-for-all be constitutional? I do not think they should be. It is hard for me to conceive of a government action more conducive to strengthening religious denominations than for government to pay the costs of educating children in schools run by churches.

It can be argued that the quality of American elementary and secondary education needs substantial improvement in nearly all school districts, and not merely in those identified as failing. The evidence to support that proposition, and the further proposition that tax support for church-affiliated schools would help improve education, is not so strong as to overcome the obvious fact that putting taxpayer money into church-affiliated schools in a vouchers-for-all plan is supporting the churches. That, the Constitution forbids.

How would the present justices of the Supreme Court cast their votes? The argument that the vouchers are issued to the parents, who can use them in secular or religious schools as they wish, much as college students can use Pell Grants, would carry the day with Chief Justice William Rehnquist and Justices Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas, and very likely with Justice John Paul Stevens. That argument can be countered on the grounds that it is far easier for a church to indoctrinate young children than youths of college age, that the state requires school but not college attendance, and that the payment to the parent is a formality since the denominational destination of most of the funds is clear. One or more of these rebuttals is likely to appeal to Justices Stephen Breyer, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, and David Souter, who I think would conclude that the vouchers-for-all plan is in substance encouraging organized religions and is, thus, unconstitutional. That leaves Justices Anthony M. Kennedy and Sandra Day O'Connor, whom I trust would in the end conclude that the education of the next generations of Americans is too important to be left to the marketplace in an already economically and culturally divided society.

Policy and law, therefore, come out at the same place. A voucher plan sending taxpayer money to church-affiliated schools is wise policy and constitutional--but only if the plan is limited to failing school districts.

Vol. 16, Issue 02, Pages 35, 37

Published in Print: September 11, 1996, as School Vouchers--A Middle View
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