Few educational issues generate more heat than the question of whether to use publicly funded vouchers to offset students' tuition in private and parochial schools. The idea is to teachers' unions what gun control is to the National Rifle Association. That explains in part why Democrats tend to rail against vouchers while Republicans embrace them as the solution to public education's ills. Even in the very civil halls of academe, where you don't know your throat's been cut until you shake your head, researchers and scholars are calling each other names over the issue of vouchers.
Ronald Reagan pushed in vain for vouchers in the early 1980s under the label of "tuition tax credits." John Chubb and Terry Moe laid a philosophical and economic foundation for vouchers in their 1989 book, Politics, Markets, and America's Schools. Resistance was quick and fierce, but slowly and steadily the idea of vouchers has gathered adherents, including recently Arthur Levine, esteemed president of Teachers College, Columbia University. So far, only Milwaukee and Cleveland have made major commitments to vouchers, and both stepped into a mare's-nest of controversy and litigation.
Proponents see vouchers as a no-lose approach to the failure of today's public schools. They argue that vouchers will introduce competition into what is now a monopoly, allowing students to leave bad public schools for better private ones. To compete, public schools will have to improve. If the public system doesn't respond, advocates say, then it ought to be replaced with an alternative that offers better education.
Opponents see vouchers as an attack on public education that could destroy the common school by diverting money and talent to private schools. They argue that poor and minority students would ultimately be left behind and that the public would wind up paying for the educations of the 5 million or so affluent and middle-class kids now in private schools.
There is a lot of baloney in the arguments of both sides. Proponents and opponents alike greatly overestimate the potential of vouchers to change the status quo significantly. Here's why:
- There would be a supply problem. Where are the empty private schools waiting to enroll millions of students bearing vouchers? Most good private and parochial schools have enough students. Creating new schools is difficult, expensive, and time-consuming, as the Edison Project demonstrated when it abandoned its dream of starting a thousand schools.
- Even if 10,000 new schools were launched to capitalize on vouchers, they would face many of the same problems public schools face. Where would they find the inspired principals, the competent teachers, and the capital for new buildings? Entrepreneurs who expect to offer a good education and still make a profit haven't looked at the financial situation of most private and parochial schools.
- Neither common sense nor our limited research suggests that private schools could do significantly better than public schools in raising the achievement of inner-city students. Private schools succeed because their students generally come from supportive middle- and upper-class families. These youngsters are better prepared for school and more motivated to do well; their parents, after all, are paying thousands of dollars a year for their educations. Nothing I've seen in private schools suggests that they would succeed if a majority of their students were poor and being reared by single parents with little education. Most private school teachers are not certified and get paid less than public school teachers. They rely on conventional curricula, scheduling, and pedagogy. The reform ideas of the past decade haven't found their way into private schools any more than they have into public schools.
Both proponents and opponents ought to scale back their respective aspirations and fears and look at vouchers as a possible way of rescuing the neediest children in the nation's most dysfunctional urban schools. It is a crime to sacrifice one generation of inner-city kids after another because we can't seem to fix our city schools. Something wonderful might result if both sides collaborated on a voucher program to give these youngsters a decent education in alternative settings and let educators go about the work of creating a public system that works.
Vol. 10, Issue 2, Page 6Published in Print: October 1, 1998, as Voucher Baloney