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What Really Matters in American Education?

The Department of Education minces no words in stating its position on private school vouchers: "Using public tax dollars for private school vouchers fundamentally undermines 200 years of public education in America." Vouchers and other key issues are examined in a new Department of Education report.

Quality public schools are the wellspring of a democracy and a free enterprise economic system. That's the basic message of What Really Matters in American Education, a report released this fall by the U.S. Department of Education. And private school vouchers, maintains the report, "threaten the fundamental mission of public education."

"I can tell you this -- if you gave the American people a choice today between using federal dollars to renovate and build new public schools or using public tax dollars to pay for private school vouchers, there would be no question how the American people would vote," asserted U.S. Secretary of Education Richard W. Riley in a speech made when the report was released.


The critical issues in education that the report examines are:

  • the interrelationship between public schools, democracy, and free enterprise.
  • the position that vouchers threaten the fundamental mission of public education.
  • the impact of vouchers on schooling.
  • the impact of choice and school type on student achievement.
  • which fundamental improvements are needed in public schools.
  • how national and local indicators suggest reforms are beginning to work.


Laws that provide for public schools reflect a commitment to the concept that all children should have access to an excellent K-12 education, regardless of their race, socioeconomic status, language proficiency, academic readiness, or special education needs.

"Therein lies the power of the American system of education -- it is truly public," asserts the report. The lessons of public school include not only academic learning but also the experience of attending a school with a diverse mix of students. The existence of public school is, the report points out, the open door to education in the United States.


The Department of Education minces no words in stating its position on private school vouchers: "Using public tax dollars for private school vouchers fundamentally undermines 200 years of public education in America."

Public schools don't serve the public, the report states; they create the public. Private school vouchers, maintains the report, would undermine public school education by:

  • diverting attention from the drive to improve the public schools. Helping a few students to attend quality private schools would not help the majority of students, who need quality public schools.
  • adding to the public cost of education. A voucher system would provide public money to pay private school tuition for children already enrolled in private schools, thus adding to the public cost of education.
  • reducing accountability. Private schools are run outside the oversight of public school authority and have no public accountability to taxpayers.
  • forcing private and parochial schools to become less private. The influx of public dollars into private and parochial schools under a voucher system would cause greater demand for scrutiny of such schools.
  • possibly violating state and U.S. Constitutions. Channeling public tax money to pay tuition at private religious schools might violate the constitutional separation of church and state.
The report concludes that "private school vouchers are too small, too costly, and too divisive to have any potential for improving the public school system."


A voucher program would violate principles of educational equity for all students because:

  • Private schools lack the capacity to accept a large number of additional students.
  • The majority of private schools are religious, and few are likely to forsake their religious mission to surmount constitutional barriers to receiving public funds.
  • Private schools could accept only the "best and brightest" students.
"Instead of giving a few students a way out," the report states, "we need to give all students a way up by improving the quality of all schools."


Research on the effect of existing private school voucher programs has not shown significant achievements for students in those programs, the report asserts. Most differences between performance in public and private schools, according to the report, can be attributed to elements in the family background of the students, such as family income and the parents' educational level.

Various studies of the impact of private school voucher programs now in effect have demonstrated mixed results, the report points out, and some of the studies suffer from methodological problems. The report cites an analysis of 1991 International Assessment of Educational Progress (IAEP) data as offering international evidence that private schools do not have significantly higher student achievement than public schools after controlling for student background.

An analysis of National Educational Longitudinal Survey (NELS) data, the report goes on, indicates that the kind of mathematics courses students take in high school are more related to math achievement than is the type of high school students attend.

"A growing body of evidence demonstrates that public school reform efforts such as challenging standards and rigorous course-taking can improve achievement for the majority of students who are in the public schools. States and local communities that have set more challenging standards are seeing substantial gains in student achievement."


Our nation's public schools, although they are moving in the right direction, have a long way to go, according to the report. The Department of Education supports the following public school improvements or reforms:

  • Safe, disciplined, and drug-free schools. A strong focus on discipline in schools and no tolerance for drugs are prerequisites to learning.
  • Clear focus on improving learning and learning the basics. All resources are dedicated to enabling all students to first learn the basics and then reach higher levels of academic performance.
  • Family involvement and public commitment to improving schools. Research demonstrates that greater family involvement helps ensure a safer, more stable learning environment in a school.
  • High academic standards and rigorous course-taking. Substantial gains in student achievement are linked to more rigorous courses, according to research cited in the report.
  • Sustained and intensive professional development for teachers. Teachers must be enabled to teach to higher standards of student performance.
  • Buildings and technology suited for learning. Schools that are safe, modern, and technologically up-to-date create a setting for enhanced student performance.
  • Reinforcement through after-school and summer programs. According to research, children in quality after-school programs with lower student-to-staff ratios, age-appropriate activities, and academic and enrichment activities show higher academic achievement and have better attitudes toward school than children left alone or under the care of siblings.
  • Greater school autonomy and accountability. If teachers are given responsibility for making decisions regarding school practice and policy, they act as professionals.
  • Expansion of public school choice options. Public magnet schools, charter schools, and open enrollment policies all expand public school choice in positive ways.
Drastic steps, the report asserts, must be taken to upgrade chronically troubled schools. In San Francisco, for example, failing schools have been closed and then reopened with new administrators, teachers, and programs.


Various national indicators show substantial short-term and long-term gains in public schools:

  • The proportion of high school graduates taking the core courses recommended in A Nation At Risk increased to 52 percent by 1994, up from 14 percent in 1982 and 40 percent in 1990.
  • Long-term gains in student achievement in mathematics and science have been demonstrated by the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP).
  • Even as the numbers and diversity of students taking college admissions tests are rising, average scores on the tests are increasing. On the SAT, combined verbal and math scores increased 19 points from 1982 to 1997.
  • Dropout rates, especially for minority students, are decreasing.

On a community basis, a number of big cities -- including San Antonio, Memphis, Milwaukee, Cincinnati, New York City, and Chicago -- have instituted reforms focused on enabling students to meet high standards. Student achievement, the report says, has improved as a result. As students progress, the report maintains, so does our nation.

Article by Sharon Cromwell
Education World®
Copyright © 1997 Education World

Related Resources

  • ACT (1997). "Trend of Increases in ACT College Entrance Scores Continues." Press release issued by ACT on 8/13/97. Iowa City, IA: The American College Testing Program.
  • High School Achievement: Public, Catholic, and Private Schools Compared, by J. Coleman, T. Hoffer, and S. Kilgore. New York: Basic Books. (1982)
  • "What Can We Really Expect from Large-Scale Voucher Programs?" by R. Corwin and M. Dianda, Phi Delta Kappan, September 1993.
  • "The Consequences of School Choice: Who Leaves and Who Stays in the Inner City," Social Science Quarterly, 6 (3), 485-501. 1995.
  • Strong Families, Strong Schools: Building Community Partnerships for Learning, by the U.S. Department of Education. Washington, DC: Published by the author, 1994.
  • "Barriers, Benefits and Costs of Using Private Schools to Alleviate Overcrowding in Public Schools: Preliminary Report," by L. Muraskin, S. Freid, and K. Lahring. Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Education (1997).

Related Sites

  • What Really Matters in American Education A comprehensive report from the U.S. Department of Education examines a number of timely educational issues and makes a case against the adoption of private school vouchers.
  • Remarks by U.S. Secretary of Education, Richard W. Riley U.S. Secretary of Education Riley speaks about the key educational issues more thoroughly developed in the above report and stakes out the administration's position opposing private school vouchers.
  • House Defeats Bill on Private School Vouchers A news report by Reuters news service (11/4/97) about the House of Representatives defeating a plan to let states use public funds for private school vouchers. Both sides of the issue are presented.
  • Nationwide Campaign Targets Private School Vouchers This Education Week (4/9/97) article explores efforts by the NAACP and People for the American Way, which have joined to battle private school vouchers. Both groups called the move toward private school vouchers a threat that would damage public schools.

Article by Gary Hopkins
Education World®
Copyright © 2006 Education World