Vouchers: What's at Issue?

One part of President Bush's education initiative has already generated more more controversy than the rest of his proposal: vouchers.

Bush avoids the term, preferring "school choice" or "portability" to describe the allocation of government funds to help students pay tuition at private schools.

But by any name, vouchers — most prominently used in Wisconsin, Cleveland and parts of Florida — are a topic of contention: an ABCNEWS poll taken earlier this month shows a public nearly evenly divided on the issue, with 48 percent supporting vouchers and 50 percent opposing them.

Broadly speaking, voucher supporters say providing choice improves public schools by forcing them to compete with private schools. Opponents say there is no evidence school systems already using vouchers increase performance, and insist the programs hinder public schools by stripping them of badly needed funds. Here is a short overview of some key points of the dispute over vouchers:

Cost: How Much Is Enough?

Bush's plan calls for $1,500 vouchers to be provided for families of students who have attended "failing" schools — those that have not shown an improvement in student performance for three years. Those schools would have to turn over a portion of their funds to pay for tuition costs at private or parochial schools.

But critics of vouchers say $1,500 per year only puts a dent in the overall cost of private or parochial schools.

According to the National Center for Education Statistics, in the 1993-1994 academic year, the average cost of tuition at a private school, including both primary and secondary institutions, was $3,116, with parochial schools charging less than the average and nonsectarian private schools costing more. For secondary schools, the figures are higher: $3,643 per year at Catholic schools, $5,261 at schools with other religious orientations, and $9,525 at secular private high schools.

"Vouchers benefit more energetic parents and those willing to take on secondary jobs," says John Jennings, director of the Center for Education Policy.

Still, the Bush proposal does not assume $1,500 will cover the full cost of tuition. Some Republicans regard the funding as the primary or secondary school equivalent of a Pell Grant, the federal college scholarship fund.

Student Performance

Researchers have engaged in a spirited academic debate over the effects of vouchers on student performance, using the Milwaukee school system as an example. The Milwaukee schools were the first to use vouchers, beginning in 1990.

Vouchers supporters have claimed Milwaukee students at private schools showed improvement in math and reading scores. But others say the evidence is unpersuasive.

"You can't reach a generalization that vouchers will lead to better student achievement," says Jennings. "In some instances, there is a small improvement. For certain kids, there is not."

Alex Molnar, a professor education at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, says there is "precious little" data to suggest an improvement, and points out the dispute boils down to interpreting data concerning just a handful of Milwaukee schools.

And Molnar, an opponent of existing voucher proposals, suggests the quality of the schools students switch to has a large impact on their performance.

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