Teachers College President Endorses Vouchers for Pupils Needing 'Rescue'

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The Wall Street Journal's editorial pages carried an argument for vouchers last week from an unexpected source: Arthur Levine, the president of Teachers College, Columbia University.

Mr. Levine's opinion piece, headlined "Why I'm Reluctantly Backing Vouchers," calls for a limited voucher program for "the poorest Americans attending the worst public schools." He suggests "a rescue operation" that would give children in the bottom 10 percent of public schools about $6,500 each to allow them to attend a nonsectarian private school, a better suburban public school, or "better urban public school alternatives" created with voucher money.

Any schools receiving voucher money should be required to meet "serious performance standards," he writes, and be accountable both fiscally and academically.

The newspaper's editorial pages have long been a forum for conservative opinion about school reform, among other topics. The submission from Mr. Levine was notable precisely because he doesn't fit that mold and presides over an institution that has long been a champion of public education.

In an interview last week, Mr. Levine said he had no intention of providing "ammunition" to voucher advocates. In fact, he said, he submitted the essay first to The New York Times, which he said declined to publish it.

The Teachers College president added that it was time to put aside ideological arguments and concentrate on the needs of the children trapped in bad schools. He stressed that he does not favor vouchers as an overall strategy and remains an ardent supporter of public schools.

Instead, he favors what he called "a surgical use of vouchers. That's as far as I'm going to go."


Many urban schools physically are falling apart and produce dismal results, Mr. Levine says in the commentary published June 15.

"These schools show no signs of improving; some are even deteriorating," he writes. "Walking through their halls, one meets students without hope and teachers without expectations. These schools damage children; they rob them of their futures.

"No parent should be forced to send a child to such a school. No student should be compelled to attend one."

Making an argument in favor of a voucher program to address such problems came only after "soul-searching," Mr. Levine writes, and was "a painful proposal for me to offer."

Mr. Levine acknowledges in the piece that he is departing from the views of most of his Teachers College colleagues in calling for even a limited voucher program.

Both national teachers' unions and many public school educators across the country are adamantly opposed to vouchers, which they argue would drain resources from the public schools that would continue to serve the majority of children.

Randi Weingarten, the president of the United Federation of Teachers, the New York City affiliate of the American Federation of Teachers, called Mr. Levine's struggle with the voucher issue unnecessary.

"We've now proven over and over again that, given the right support, public schools with even the worst academic problems can and have been turned around and made successful," she said, noting that 15 New York City schools performed well enough last year to be taken off the state's low-achievement list.

But Peter Cookson Jr., a professor at Teachers College who has written extensively against vouchers, called Mr. Levine's suggestions "worth examining." He noted that past presidents of Teachers College--including the noted progressive educator John Dewey--often aired provocative suggestions. "This came from a deep moral conviction of Arthur's," he said. "I'm skeptical about [vouchers], but I actually believe that some experiments can be useful to begin to clear the air."

Jeanne Allen, the president of the Center for Education Reform, a Washington group that advocates vouchers and charter schools, called the commentary "extraordinary."

"His piece was very informed," she said. "This is not knee-jerk. He can't be considered ideological. This was very courageous, bold, and to the point."

Vol. 17, Issue 41, Pages 1, 14-15

Published in Print: June 24, 1998, as Teachers College President Endorses Vouchers for Pupils Needing 'Rescue'
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