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School Vouchers 101: An Overview of This Year's Hottest Campaign Debate

One of the hottest political issues of this presidential election year is the school voucher -- tax dollars used for private schools. Political debate and legal wrangling has focused, in part, on using government money to support private, religious schools. Included: The results of two Harvard University studies that evaluate school voucher programs after one year.

One of the hottest political issues of this presidential election year is the school voucher -- tax dollars used to pay students' tuition at private schools. The two leading candidates are sharply divided about vouchers -- as are those who oppose or support this method of school reform. The debate may be sidelined if the Supreme Court makes a decision about using tax dollars to support private schools. Don't count on it, though! So far, the nation's top court has sidestepped the issue by refusing to hear school voucher cases.

Opponents say vouchers abandon the public school system and hurt those students who need public education money the most. They worry it will take only the best and the brightest out of the nation's public schools. Proponents argue that vouchers will fix broken public school systems, especially helping disadvantaged kids who attend failing schools.


There are a number of privately funded school voucher programs, but only a few programs are supported with tax dollars. For example, in places like Vermont, where some rural towns do not have their own high schools, a tradition of school vouchers has been used to subsidize public high school education. To fix failing schools as part school reform, two cities -- Milwaukee and Cleveland -- provide students from low-income families school vouchers, which parents can use to pay for private and religious schools.

Florida joined their ranks in May 1999, making it the only state in the nation with a tax-supported voucher program. The future of Florida's voucher program is uncertain, however. A state circuit court judge ruled it unconstitutional in March 2000 but allowed it to continue in a subsequent decision until the state's higher courts render another ruling. The case is currently headed to an appeals court, and many people expect the state's supreme court will eventually hear it.

The Cleveland Scholarship and Tutoring Program was approved in 1995 for students from low-income families. Initially, the program funded about 2,000 scholarships. Participation now numbers 3,411 students. The average voucher is for $1,500, although some students receive scholarships of up to $2,500, depending on their school's tuition, said Saundra Draper Berry, director of the program. Eligible students are selected by lottery.

The future of the Cleveland program is also uncertain and is currently part of a federal judicial proceeding, after a lower court ruled against it.

About 7,900 students participate in the Milwaukee Parental School Choice Program. Participation has increased substantially since the program began with 300 students in 1990. Today, about two-thirds of those participating in the school choice program attend religious schools, receiving $5,106 toward tuition in grades 1 through 12.

After the legislature approved vouchers for private religious schools in 1997, enrollment in the Milwaukee voucher program jumped from 1,500 to 6,000 in the next school year, said Charlie Toulmin, administrator of the program. "It exploded after that," he said. So did the cost. When the program began, it cost $700,000, which came from funds earmarked by the state for the Milwaukee school district. Now 50 percent of the funding -- nearly $40 million -- comes from money designated specifically for Milwaukee and the remaining portion from the state's general education fund, Toulmin said.

By comparison, Florida's program is small at the present time. About 60 students from two schools deemed failing in Pensacola participated in the state's voucher program. Students were eligible to receive up to $3,389 to pay for a private or parochial education. Another 85 transferred to higher-performing public schools.

Next fall may be a very different story if the courts permit the voucher program to continue. An estimated 60,000 students attend 78 schools that received a failing grade last year, based on the state's standardized assessment tests in reading, writing, and math, said JoAnn Carrin, the deputy communications director for the Florida Department of Education. Under the state's A+ Plan for Education, if those schools receive a failing grade again this year, the 60,000 students will be eligible for school vouchers. Students attending those schools can use vouchers to attend schools they choose, including parochial schools.


Secretary of Education Richard W. Riley has said that vouchers will drain badly needed public tax dollars into private and parochial schools. "If we are serious about strengthening our public schools, we need a sustained commitment to improve them -- to raise standards, to have accurate assessments linked to standards, and to adopt the strong accountability measures we've proposed but not try to solve a public school problem by abandoning public schools," Riley said in a statement last fall.

Fixing school districts that don't teach kids is a big part of the presidential candidates' education platforms. One remedy is to require more accountability for learning and teaching. Democratic presidential candidate Al Gore recently announced a plan to make schools, teachers, and students more accountable.

Gore's overall education platform does not support school vouchers. Gore maintains that vouchers will take education resources away from those who desperately need them, Gore's press secretary, Doug Hattaway, told Education World. Although he supports school choice as one method of improving public education, Gore supports school choice only within the scope of the public school system, Hattaway said.

Both major-party candidates agree that more accountability is needed in education, but they are sharply divided about school vouchers. Republican candidate George W. Bush's education platform supports school vouchers.

Bush's plan gives parents of children attending any Title I school that has not improved within three years the choice to keep their children at their current school or to use a voucher to send their child elsewhere, Bush spokesman Scott McClellan told Education World. The Bush education reform plan gives local school districts autonomy and power to set their own standards by establishing their own testing measurements, McClellan said.

The National Association of Secondary School Principals (NASSP) mirrors Gore's position, which does not support vouchers for parochial schools but does support alternative choices within the public sector. "The ultimate irony is that Bush has done a very good job in Texas," said Gerald Tirozzi, director of the NASSP. "It seems to be an oxymoron to support school vouchers with such an excellent record of turning around failing public schools. It plays well in the political arena."


School vouchers have been in a seemingly perpetual state of legal flux. The Supreme Court did step in somewhat in the fall of 1999 by lifting a temporary injunction to allow new students into Cleveland's voucher program until a higher court rendered a decision.

As the presidential candidates debate the pros and cons of vouchers, the Supreme Court hasn't been much help in resolving the issue. In 1998, the U.S. Supreme Court refused to hear an appeal after the Wisconsin Supreme Court decided for the Milwaukee voucher program. Refusing to hear the case allowed the tax-supported Milwaukee program, which provides funding for students to attend religious schools, to continue. In December 1999, the U.S. Supreme Court refused to hear another appeal, this one regarding the Vermont policy of subsidizing private high school education while refusing funds for parochial institutions.


Studies of public and private voucher systems are not reporting the gloom and doom predicted by its opponents. Researchers warn that the studies are still evaluating relatively new, small-scale systems. So far, there has not been a mass exodus of the "best and the brightest," according to an evaluation of Edgewood School District in San Antonio Texas by Harvard University's Taubman Center for State and Local Government. The Taubman Center investigates numerous issues in education.

Research has long supported that students who attend private schools generally score higher on math and reading tests compared with public school students. The same then would seem to hold true of students offered vouchers so they can attend private schools. "The benefits of attending private schools are particularly evident for African Americans, which is consistent with that of other studies," said Paul E. Peterson, director of the Program on Education Policy and Governance (PEPG), Harvard University, and co-author of several evaluations of school voucher programs.

"For African Americans, we see gains in math and somewhat in reading, especially if the children are young,'' Peterson said. An evaluation of School Choice in Dayton, Ohio: An Evaluation After One Year, found that test scores were higher among African American students attending private schools with the voucher -- about 75 percent participate in that privately funded program -- than the scores of their public school peers. Test scores were higher in reading and math, seven national percentile points and five percentile points respectively, after one year. There were no significant differences between test scores of non-African American students in public and private schools after one year. The study was conducted by the Program on Education Policy and Governance (PEPG), Harvard University.

The PEPG study of a Washington, D.C., scholarship program, School Choice in Washington D.C.: An Evaluation After One Year, reported a mixed bag. Younger students improved their test results and older students did worse in reading.

Peterson warns that if vouchers are to be successful, children should be moved into a private school at an early age. His studies find that older students have a more difficult adjustment. In fact, parents of students newly enrolled in the voucher program reported higher suspension rates for students in grades 6 through 8, 20 percent compared with 3 percent in public schools.

Younger students also performed better on testing compared with middle school students. Test scores for the younger students, in grades 2 through 5, outperformed their public school peers by 3 national percentile points in reading and 7 percentile points in math. The improvement in math is statistically significant but the difference in reading is not.

Students in grades 6 through 8 tested better in math by 2 national percentile points but did worse than their public school peers in reading by 8 points.


The evaluation does not support concerns that vouchers will skim the "cream" -- taking the best and the brightest -- from public schools. The PEPG study didn't find a significant difference between the younger students who accepted and declined the scholarship. However, older students accepting the scholarship did have higher math and reading scores -- 6 to 9 points respectively -- than those who declined the scholarship.

As for the criticism that poorer students will be left behind because those families will not be able to afford private schools, the study did find that to be somewhat true. Students who accepted the scholarships did have slightly higher family incomes. The scholarships paid about half the average tuition of private schools. Those who declined scholarship money were also more likely to be dependent on government welfare.

Overall, parents reported higher levels of satisfaction with private schools and found an education climate superior to that in public schools. Class and overall school sizes were smaller in private school settings. Parents also reported more homework was assigned in private schools.

"This is only an indicator over a brief period of time," Peterson told Education World. Until a larger number of students participate in school voucher programs over a longer period of time, greater generalizations cannot be made. For example, the results of the Washington program are limited because only a small fraction of low-income students were offered scholarships. Peterson and his colleagues caution in their reports that a larger program could have very different results.

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