School Choice & Charters Opinion

A Tentative Hope for Vouchers

By Ted Fish — October 30, 2002 7 min read
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What seems remarkable to me, in all this talk about vouchers, is how inflamed each of us can get inside our opinions, while at the same time there are so few facts to ground our thinking.

The heated debate on school choice scales the walls of the ivory tower.

This point was brought home for me a year ago, when I took part in a graduate seminar at Teachers College, Columbia University, called “School Choice.” The class often seemed to resemble a TV talk show more than a graduate seminar. Conversations escalated quickly, until hands were shooting up all over the room, and faces were turning various colors and contortions in encouragement or opposition to what was being said. Not your standard academic etiquette.

But “Choice” was not your standard academic class. When a group of teachers, administrators, and future policymakers gathers itself in a room to contemplate questions that tug at the very core of what Horace Mann, Thomas Jefferson, and other architects of America’s common school tradition created, the words strike deep. For even the most apolitical, viewpoints and beliefs begin to emerge from nowhere and start exerting themselves. Attitudes about money surface, along with feelings about sharing and helping. And, of course, the question of what society should do for the poor arises.

During the course of the semester, I found that most of my notions about many of these matters had been formed on a substrate too thin to handle the complexity of the issues involved. My opinions were repeatedly exposed and trampled, until there was nothing to do but leave them there on the classroom floor.

Ultimately, I came to form an extremely tentative hypothesis on school choice. As a guide for public policy, it would surely fail, for in the political arena, too much consideration is seen as a sign of weakness and is preyed upon. (I think of the story about Harry Truman, who, disgusted with his advisers’ tendency to say, “On the one hand, this ... but, on the other hand, that,” one day exclaimed: “Someone find me a one-handed economist!”)

And so I present this hypothesis not as policy prescription, but as food for thought. My hope is to challenge thinkers on both sides of the fence.

In the nearly two decades since publication of A Nation at Risk, the question fueling reform has been: What do we do about fixing our schools? Not, Do they need fixing?

Implicit in the question is the fact that we are not talking about all public schools. No one, after all, is complaining about the suburban schools of Scarsdale, N.Y., or the North Shore of Chicago. The concern has been focused on mostly poor inner- city or rural programs.

Out of all the diverging opportunities that have come from reform—charter programs; school management companies; the standards movement; and vouchers—it is the last, vouchers, that in my opinion has the greatest potential to do the most good.

Most of my notions about these matters had been formed on a substrate too thin to handle the complexity of the issues involved.

Why? We all know the standard, free- market arguments. Overused as they may at times seem, these remain strong. The Soviet Union is no more, Cuba and other former Soviet satellites struggle, while capital markets expand across the globe.

Or consider, on a more personal level, this question: If your life absolutely depended on the next- day delivery of a letter, which would you rather use, the United States Postal Service or Federal Express?

Free markets are not perfect (of this, more later), but over the last 250 years, in every country or industry that has held the test, free markets have proved to be the most effective way to manage large numbers of buyers, sellers, and goods.

So we have to import that technology to our schools. But we must do it carefully.

In the coming months, instead of arguing about whether vouchers are good or bad, I hope that state legislators and all the various stakeholders concerned will ask: Can we create a voucher system that will do more good for all of those involved than harm? If so, how? And if not, why?

This series of questions does away with absolutes, for vouchers, like most anything else, can be either good or bad. By framing the questions in this way, we at least will be directing our intelligence constructively

Any answers, in my opinion, will have to account for the following three facts:

1. In spite of the expanding national conversation about vouchers, we don’t know a great deal about them. During my search in graduate school, I could not find a single study that had been done by an objective researcher with a rock-solid methodology. Every report I encountered smacked outright of bias, or was funded by an agency with a particular agenda.

Getting some clear data is of paramount importance. And that, of course, is easier said than done. To begin with, the list of possible candidates is relatively small: Programs in Cleveland and Milwaukee, still in comparative infancy, have neither the scale envisioned by some voucher proponents nor the ability at present to gather intelligible results with ease and validity.

Nevertheless, helpful data can be gathered, and that evidence can be augmented by pilot studies launched by individual states.

Simply opening the funding floodgates and handing out vouchers to all who want them might serve only to perpetuate the imbalances already present in society.

2. We don’t know what the transition will look like. Voucher opponents argue that every dollar spent on a voucher is a dollar taken away from the existing public school infrastructure. Assuming we move slowly, which is usually a good idea, and run voucher programs in parallel with what is currently in existence, the critics are right. All programs face critical financial thresholds; push the envelope, and the programs cave in.

Consequently, if we choose to administer pilot voucher programs, we will have to regulate their size and/or consider (as has already been the case) allocating only a portion of the per-pupil expenditure in the voucher, and directing the rest to the existing school.

3. We have to guard against excesses and unknowns. Free markets have three main flaws, all of which are starkly illuminated in the investment debacle now unfolding on Wall Street:

  • Some members of society can’t muster enough “buying power” to be effectively heard; as a result, their rights can sometimes be ignored.
  • In the absence of effective government regulation, the strongest members hoard too much power, and often abuse the rest of us.
  • Free markets, as whole systems, can run roughshod over society as a whole by jeopardizing some of the things we all care about: health, the environment, justice. Markets do this because they are motivated by profit and efficiency, not by other values that make life worth living.

So simply opening the funding floodgates and handing out vouchers to all who want them might serve only to perpetuate the imbalances already present in society. The richest families, many of whom are already sending their children to private schools, will benefit. Or the privileged schools will benefit, in the absence of government regulation, because they can add the amount of the voucher to their current tuition. Or the charlatans who know nothing about school management (or the inept who think they do) will open schools and benefit at the expense of thousands of pupils.

Three responses might help. Legislatures could evaluate a graded approach to vouchers. The average per-pupil expenditure in the United States is approximately $6,000 for public schools. The average independent school tuition in the most elite programs hovers around $14,000. Meanwhile, parochial schools often charge below $4,000.

If the poorest families were given vouchers of $7,500, the middle class were given vouchers of $6,000, and the wealthy were given vouchers of $1,000, those lower on the economic ladder would have real purchasing power; many of the wealthy families who already send their children to independent schools would come out ahead of where they are now; and private schools would have little incentive to raise their fees. Incentive would exist, on the other hand, for new programs to form.

Legislatures might also consider providing educational counselors who could disseminate information about how the voucher system works and offer guidance to the least educated.

If there is hope for vouchers, or for any method of reforming our schools, it will come through dialogue and debate.

And finally, some kind of regulatory commission (perhaps made up of teachers) could certify schools before they became eligible to receive voucher money, as a way of controlling for bad apples.

These three ideas have been sketched out cursorily. The point is not to make an exhaustive argument, but to show that there is not one way to “do” vouchers. With a little bit of creative thinking, vouchers could become agents of educational improvement—for all of us.

But the real work is just beginning. The U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in Zelman v Simmons-Harris did not break the ice for programs, but for process. Now, the creativity and the vigorous debate of the people can get fully under way.

As I discovered while confronting my own skepticism in a graduate seminar, free markets warrant caution, but also contain wisdom. They suggest that the aggregate creation, one of all the people together, will find an order and an intelligence beyond what any acting alone or in small groups could create.

If there is hope for vouchers, or for any method of reforming our schools, it will come through dialogue and debate. What better place to do this than in our newspapers, at town meetings, and on the floors of our state legislatures?

Ted Fish, an independent school founder and its former director, is a doctoral candidate at Teachers College, Columbia University, in New York City.

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