The Case for Vouchers

Sunday, January 30, 2000

Perhaps you’re familiar with the "skimming" argument against school vouchers. As this line of thinking goes, the parents most likely to opt for vouchers will be the ones who are already most involved with their children’s education—which, on average, will mean the parents of the most motivated and gifted students. Once the best and the brightest flee to private schools, public schools will only get worse; this debilitating cycle will continue until the best students are skimmed off and the only kids left in public schools are those with the fewest skills and the least-involved parents—in other words, the students most in need of help. "Vouchers are like leeches," says North Carolina governor Jim Hunt. "They drain the lifeblood—public support—from our schools." Bob Chase, president of the National Education Association, concurs; establishing a system of vouchers, he says, would be like "bleeding a patient to death."

We liberals are sensitive to this argument because we know that needy students are now getting the short end of the educational stick. Yet, while liberals are right to be concerned about these students, new data from a privately financed voucher program in Texas suggest that we should give vouchers a second, more serious look. Far from aggravating income and racial disparities in education, vouchers may actually help to ameliorate them.

In April 1998, the Children’s Educational Opportunity (CEO) Foundation offered vouchers to any low-income child in San Antonio’s Edgewood school district. Almost all of the district’s 13,490 students were eligible for the program because Edgewood is among the poorest of the city’s twelve school districts—more than 90 percent of its students are economically disadvantaged, and 93 percent are Latino. (Nonetheless, the district, which receives 90 percent of its funding from state and federal aid, spends more than $6,000 per pupil, which exceeds the state average.)

Far from aggravating income and racial disparities in education, vouchers may actually help to lessen them.

The vouchers were hardly paltry: Providing up to $3,600 a year for elementary school students and $4,000 a year for those in high school, they more than cover tuition at most San Antonio private schools, which for voucher students averages less than $2,000 annually. And, once a child’s family decided to use vouchers, the CEO Foundation promised to continue providing them until that child graduated from high school, as long as he or she still lived in Edgewood. In addition, students could use the vouchers anywhere in San Antonio, even in public schools outside Edgewood that were willing to accept them. In the program’s first year (the 1998–1999 school year), approximately eight hundred Edgewood students made use of the vouchers.

The Texas Federation of Teachers howled that private schools would "cherry pick" the best students and predicted that the program would "shorten the honor roll" in public schools. "Right now, I don’t have the profile of every child," Edgewood school superintendent Dolores Muñoz said on PBS’s NewsHour with Jim Lehrer, "[but] I guarantee you that at least 80 percent will be the high-achieving students."

To make matters worse, stories of private schools shutting out applicants quickly circulated. Edgewood’s school board president, Manuel Garza, wrote in the San Antonio Express News that he had received a call from "a mother . . . for help because their application to the [Horizon program] had been denied. . . . I asked why she was denied. The mother said she was a single mom, had two jobs, and was told she was unacceptable because she could not dedicate time for extracurricular requirements, like helping out with homework and fund-raising." In other words, not only were the voucher students an unusually strong group academically, but the private schools were then allegedly winnowing their ranks even further.

But data from a recently completed evaluation (funded by the Packard Foundation) that included results from tests of student achievement and questionnaires filled out by parents during testing sessions yield a more encouraging picture. (Standard techniques were employed to ensure a representative sample, and Mathematica Policy Research, a well-respected evaluation firm with contracts with the Department of Education and other government agencies, collected the data.)

It’s true that the private schools had only limited capacity, in part because the program was unveiled in April and went into effect the very next August. Yet there is little evidence that the schools were weeding out all but the best students. For example, on the math component of the Iowa Test of Basic Skills, on which the national median score falls at the fiftieth percentile, the voucher students, upon arriving at their new schools, scored at the thirty-seventh percentile, while the students who stayed in public school scored at the thirty-fifth—a difference that is not statistically significant. In reading, voucher students scored at the thirty-fifth percentile, while public school students scored at the twenty-eighth. This difference is significant but is hardly the gaping disparity voucher opponents predicted. In addition, just 23 percent of the voucher students had been enrolled in programs for gifted students, while 29 percent of the students who stayed in public school were.

These results are consistent with analyses conducted by the research department at the Edgewood public schools, which compared the test scores of students who later accepted vouchers with the scores of those who remained behind. Never made public, perhaps because it directly contradicted the school superintendent’s assertions, the research did not show a significant "skimming" effect. In the authors’ technical language: "Few statistically significant differences [in average test scores] are to be found between [the voucher] students . . . and those not . . . identified" as voucher students.

Apparently, families have many reasons for choosing private schools. They may be looking for better schools for children who are doing poorly just as often as they are looking for other schools for bright youngsters. And what about income? Average household income was nearly identical—right around $16,000. The students’ ethnic background (96 percent Latino) and their levels of welfare dependency and residential stability were also extremely similar.

But admission to private school is one thing; keeping one’s place in school is another. Since private schools can suspend or expel students more easily than public schools can, critics say, they are able to weed out the worst students. Again, the numbers refute this seemingly logical argument. Suspension rates were equal for the voucher students and the Edgewood public school students—around 5 percent for both groups. Quite apart from suspensions, the voucher students were more likely to remain in the same school for the year and were just as likely to return to that school the next year.

This isn’t to say that there were no distinctions whatsoever among the students. Eight percent of voucher students were enrolled in some sort of special education, while the figure for public school students was 16 percent. There were also some modest demographic differences between the two groups of parents. The average mother of a voucher student had completed twelve years of education, compared to eleven years for the average public school mother. Half of the voucher-student mothers worked full time, compared to just 37 percent of the mothers who kept their kids in public school. Only 22 percent of voucher-student mothers were on food stamps, but 33 percent of public school mothers were.

But these small distinctions are hardly enough to justify the extreme resistance to vouchers. For one thing, those helped by vouchers were far from well-off—the parents reported making less than $16,000 a year! There are plenty of other government programs, from Pell Grants to the earned income tax credit, that benefit predominantly the working poor, and nobody (well, almost nobody) protests them on the grounds that they don’t benefit people farther down the economic ladder. Support for vouchers is particularly strong among minority families, especially those living in cities. According to a recent survey undertaken at Stanford University, 85 percent of the inner-city poor favor a voucher plan, compared with 59 percent of more-advantaged parents who live in the suburbs. Asked if they "strongly" favor a voucher plan, 58 percent of poor urbanites agreed, compared to just one-third of upper-middle-class suburbanites.

Despite three decades of busing, public schools today are more segregated, not less. In fact, private schools are actually more racially integrated than public schools.

More important, though, vouchers have the potential to improve socioeconomic and racial integration, as long as they are generous enough to cover most of the tuition and as long as schools are prohibited from racial or ethnic discrimination in admissions. Remember, our public school system is already plagued by vast inequalities. Because most school funding comes through local property taxes, disparities among affluent suburban schools and city or rural schools are legendary. The story on race is no better: Despite three decades of busing, public schools today are more segregated, not less. In 1997, 69 percent of African Americans attended schools composed predominantly of minority students, up from 64 percent in 1973. For Latinos, the increase is much steeper, from 57 percent to 75 percent over the past twenty-five years. Today, despite federal interventions ranging from Head Start to compensatory education, we have disturbingly large test-score gaps between cities and suburbs, as well as between blacks and whites. According to one 1994 survey, only 43 percent of urban fourth graders read at a basic level, compared with 63 percent of students in nonurban areas.

Private schools, in contrast, are already more racially integrated than public ones. University of Texas professor Jay Greene estimates that private school classrooms are seven percentage points more integrated than public schools. Examining Department of Education data, he also found more interracial friendships in private schools than in public ones (as reported by students) as well as less interracial fighting (as reported by administrators, teachers, and students). And, sure enough, in all the voucher programs for which we have been able to obtain ethnic data, students were less likely—or at least no more likely—to be attending segregated schools than students remaining in public school. This isn’t surprising, given that private schools can draw students from across school district boundaries and that religious schools provide a common tie that cuts across racial lines.

Oh, yes, and how about those voucher families in Edgewood—what do they think of their new schools? More than 60 percent say they are "very satisfied" with the schools’ academic quality, compared to 35 percent of the Edgewood public school parents. Similar differences in satisfaction levels are reported by parents regarding school safety, school discipline, and quality of teaching.

There are, of course, many other arguments against voucher programs, from the church-and-state issue to questions about for-profit schools. I don’t happen to buy those arguments, either, but I’m happy to encourage more pilot programs that will provide testing grounds for those who have concerns. Given the potential of vouchers to achieve more racial and socioeconomic diversity in education—one of the great goals of education reformers since the 1960s—you’d think more liberals would be open to experimenting with them.