The Case for 'Progressive' Vouchers

The Wall Street Journal

Education tops the list of Americans' concerns. But there's no agreement on
what to do about it. The biggest emerging battle is between people who
advocate school choice and those who want more money for schools. George
W. Bush wants to give vouchers to poor kids in failing schools so they, and
their parents, can shop for a better education.

But Al Gore says no way. He would prefer to spend $115 billion more on
schools over the next 10 years, by contrast with the $13.5 billion over five
years that Mr. Bush proposes . Joe Lieberman, who has sponsored legislation
calling for experiments with vouchers for private schools, is now mute on the
subject. Meanwhile, voucher plans in Cleveland and Florida are in the courts,
and initiatives to authorize statewide voucher schemes will be on ballots this
fall in California and Michigan.

Vouchers Work

The standoff between vouchers and money is predictable. It is also
regrettable, because it prevents consideration of a most promising way to
improve school performance-giving kids ''progressive vouchers that are
inversely related to the size of their family's income.

Evidence mounts that vouchers do work for kids who use them. A new study of
students in New York, Washington and Dayton, Ohio--conducted by
researchers at Harvard, Georgetown and the University of Wisconsin--found
that after two years, the average performance of black students who switched
to private schools was 6% higher than that of students who stayed behind in
public schools.

So why not simply "voucherize" all education funding and let students and
their parents select where they can get the best education? After all, that's
what wealthy and upper-middle-class families do by choosing pricey homes in
upscale towns with excellent public schools (in which case the ''voucher" comes
with the home), or by sending their kids to private schools. Voucher
proponents, including a growing number of black parents, argue that poor kids
should have the same advantage.

The biggest drawback to vouchers is that kids who are most troublesome, or
whose parents couldn't care less or are overwhelmed with other problems,
would almost certainly end up bunched together in the worst schools. Such
schools would become even worse than they were before. After all, the
increasing concentration of poor kids in America's poor schools has already
compounded the problems these kids and those schools must deal with.
Assuming that the kids who leave these schools take public money with them,
the worst schools would end up with fewer resources per difficult child.

The new study also confirms the importance of school environment. The
parents of voucher recipients noted the differences between their children's
private schools and their former public schools, pointing out that there was
less fighting, less destruction of property, and less racial conflict in the private
schools than in the public schools their kids left behind.

Why is behavior better in private schools? For one thing, private schools
enforce discipline in ways that public schools cannot. In particular, private
schools can expel a child who seriously misbehaves. About 20% of the
students in the study who were selected to attend private schools never
completed the two years. It seems a fair guess that at least some of them
were sent packing. But public schools must, by law, provide a public education
to all. The students drawn to private schools are also likely to be better
behaved than those who remain in public schools. In the study I cite, most of
the students already attending the private schools were from families who
cared enough about their children to seek a good education for them, and who
earned enough to afford one. By contrast, many inner-city public schools are
comprised of students whose families are either unable to pay attention to
their futures, or very poor, or both.

There is a powerful case for giving every possible advantage to
better-behaved poor kids who are fortunate enough to have caring parents.
School vouchers offer them an escape route from troublesome and
unmotivated peers, negative peer influences and anarchic environments where
teachers have to spend much of their time trying to maintain order. But it also
means that school vouchers alone won't solve the problem of poor kids and
lousy schools. Vouchers may just concentrate the problem further.

Almost a decade ago, New Zealand embarked on the closest thing we've seen
to a national school-voucher experiment. Parents were given the right to
choose the school their kids attended. This gave schools that attracted more
applicants than they could accommodate great discretion over whom they
accepted. The result: The best schools became even better, as they attracted
the highest achievers. But the worst schools grew worse--with ever-greater
concentrations of difficult-to-teach students from impoverished homes.
Vouchers--with nothing more-- led to economic and social polarization.

But polarization exists in the U.S. because of residential segregation by income
as well as the stark relationship between a community's tax base and the
quality of its schools. Poor kids are more likely to attend underfunded schools
than kids who aren't poor. Analysis from the National Center for Education
Statistics shows that most poor students live in districts that spend less per
student than their state's average. The Department of Education recently
reported that much of the teaching in America's poorest schools is being done
by teacher's aides without college degrees, rather than by qualified teachers.

The only way to begin to decouple poor kids from lousy schools is to give poor
kids additional resources, along with vouchers enabling them and their parents
to choose how to use them. Per-pupil public expenditures now average
between $6,000 and $7,000 a year in the U.S. (with some states spending as
much as $9,000, and others as little as $4,000. Ideally, a child from America's
poorest 20% of families would receive a voucher worth between $10,000 and
$12,000. Children from families in the next quintile would receive vouchers
worth between $8,000 and $10,000. The vouchers could be used at any school
that meets certain minimum standards, regardless of whether the school is
now dubbed "public," "charter'' or ''private.'' (Leave aside, for now, the tricky
First Amendment issue of public money for religious schools.)

What would be the likely result of such progressive vouchers? Schools already
in easy geographic reach of poor kids would get an immediate infusion of
billions of dollars they could use to upgrade physical plants, buy new
textbooks, initiate after-school programs, and hire more and better teachers.
But they would also have to compete with other schools nearby which thought
they could put those sizable vouchers to even better educational use.

Even some suburban schools can be expected to enter the competition. The
large vouchers would make it worthwhile to send vans to pick up and drop off
groups of inner-city students. Although the most intensive competition would
center on the best-behaved poor kids whose parents were most aggressive in
seeking out good schools, the large vouchers would spur schools to recruit and
retain more difficult children as well. Students, parents, and the schools they
select would sign contracts for a minimum of two years, outlining their mutual
objectives and responsibilities for meeting them.

Wealthier suburban schools would have even greater incentive to compete for
students from poor families if the progressive voucher extended all the way up
the income ladder. If children from families in the top 20% of income got
vouchers of, say, $2,000 to $4,000 a year, schools in wealthier communities
would make every effort to seek out enough $l0,000 or $12,000 ''vouchered"
students in their region to meet their budgets.

The Challenge

Do you like the idea? Don't hold your breath. A progressive voucher system is a
very long shot for now. For it to become a reality, we would need a substantial
overhaul of the financing of public education. This would entail pooling local
property taxes from both rich and poor communities (which the rich are likely to
resist with no less intensity than they've opposed state schemes to better
equalize educational spending) and dramatically increasing federal and state
funding.

Teachers' unions may not look fondly upon the idea either, although it could
result in higher salaries for good teachers. The largest challenge is to convince
each side in the current education battle that they have only part of the
answer, and their opponents have the other.

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