Privatization Center To Seek Balanced View of Vouchers

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Should the new National Center for the Study of Privatization in Education be "neutral" on the subject of vouchers? Or is a "dispassionate" position more appropriate? What about "balanced," "unbiased," or "objective"?

The discussion was more than academic for the 110 participants at the center's inaugural conference at Teachers College, Columbia University. The center hopes to become the nation's best source of information on the politically charged issue of vouchers, and its success depends in large part on whether it can avoid a perception of bias.

Arthur Levine

"We have conservatives who have looked at voucher programs and never found one that didn't work, and liberals who never found one that did work," said Arthur Levine, the president of Teachers College, which is hosting the new center. "It's time that we gave this issue an unbiased look."

Most of the professors, researchers, teachers' union members, business entrepreneurs, and journalists who attended the April 9-10 conference here agreed that the center's goal is a worthy one. But many questioned whether it can be achieved.

Maintaining neutrality will be "incredibly difficult," predicted Lee Mitgang, a former education reporter for The Associated Press, who spoke on the news media's coverage of vouchers.

Mr. Mitgang, now an independent educational and editorial consultant, said that no matter what the center does, "I think you can count on partisans on either side of the voucher debate characterizing this center as friend or foe."

Henry M. Levin

Henry M. Levin, the center's director, acknowledged during the conference's opening remarks that the prospect of such reactions was a concern.

"The question I have been asked [about the center] many times is, 'Can it be done?' " said Mr. Levin, who is retiring this year from Stanford University, where he has taught education and economics for 31 years. ("Levin To Launch Privatization Center at Columbia," April 7, 1999.)

He insisted that it can, and added that he is the right person to direct the center. After three decades of thinking about vouchers, he said, "basically where I am is confused, mixed, and undecided, which is probably appropriate."

For the record, Mr. Levin described the center's mission as providing a "balanced" look at vouchers. Mr. Mitgang said he preferred the term "dispassionate." Frank Newman, the president of the Education Commission of the States, disagreed, advising Mr. Levin to be "objective."

"You don't want to be neutral," Mr. Newman said. "You want to be objective. Some things are right, and some things are wrong."

Different Priorities

At one session, Mr. Levin offered some insight into how the center will acknowledge the divergent points of view on vouchers.

He described four "dimensions" through which the issue can be addressed: freedom of choice, efficiency, equity, and social cohesion.

Conservatives, Mr. Levin said, tend to be more interested in the first two dimensions. They generally support vouchers as a way to help parents determine which school their children attend, and believe that the competition resulting from vouchers will make schools more efficient.

Liberals, meanwhile, tend to worry that vouchers will benefit certain groups of students more than others, and that they will lead to racial resegregation, Mr. Levin said.

Those predispositions are critical to evaluating a voucher program's success, he argued, because "certain results are more important to some people than others."

For example, someone whose main priority is freedom of choice would probably be "willing to take a little inefficiency," Mr. Levin said. Likewise, someone whose main priority is social cohesion might object to vouchers if they greatly improved achievement but also resulted in resegregation.

Mr. Levin said the center's specific activities will include a World Wide Web site that will provide a compilation of studies on voucher programs, as well as updates on relevant legislation in the states.

The center also plans to establish a set of criteria for evaluating voucher studies, Mr. Levin said. "We will take the findings and say, 'These seem to be well-supported, these have very little support.' "

Eventually, the center will commission research, probably in partnership with other groups.

At least for the next few years, Mr. Levin said, the center will concentrate on vouchers rather than the full range of "privatization" issues in education, as the center's name would seem to imply.

'Incredible Debate'

The main purpose of the conference was to identify topics that deserve further study. Speakers suggested research on everything from the legal status of vouchers to their effect on the poor.

One of the most provocative discussions concerned the amount of information parents need to make smart decisions about school choice.

"There is incredible debate about how much information we should expect parents to have," said Mark Schneider, the chairman of the political science department at the State University of New York at Stony Brook.

"If we say every parent has to be informed, if we say every parent has to have pinpoint knowledge, we're always going to find parents and school choice wanting," he argued. "Those standards are wrong."

But no one knows what is an acceptable percentage of informed parents, how much they should know, or even how the information can be conveyed, Mr. Schneider added.

Most parents say "good teachers" are the most important factor in choosing a school, he noted. "But I'll be damned if I know how to measure good teachers."

Vol. 18, Issue 32, Page 11

Published in Print: April 21, 1999, as Privatization Center To Seek Balanced View of Vouchers
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