Vouchers: What's at Issue?

Jan. 23, 2001 -- 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.

"When students go to an exciting school, the culture of that school is going to sweep them up," Molnar says. "But in a widespread vouchers program, in which large numbers of students are going to schools that haven't existed before, you may retard their development."

Michael Garber, director of the Education Policy Center at the Hudson Institute, a conservative policy group, says there are "qualitative" benefits to school choice that have not yet been adequately measured.

"There are a lot more happy parents," says Garber. "If parents become more engaged in the schools, if kids are happier to go to school, those are benefits."

School Performance

A primary argument of conservatives is that vouchers will engender improvement in existing public schools by forcing them to improve or risk losing their funds.

"An accountability system must have a consequence, otherwise it's not much of an accountability system," said Bush today while introducing his education initiative.

Bush's plan includes a "school improvement fund" that would increase federal aid to struggling schools before later stripping money away from them to pay for vouchers.

But teachers' organizations, among other groups, are solidly lined up against vouchers, saying the money should be used to improve existing public schools instead of creating new ones.

"We need to take steps to improve the education programs in our failing schools," says Nat LaCour, an executive vice president of the American Federation for Teachers. "Vouchers draw more money away from public schools and in so doing they do more harm than good."

And Molnar claims there is no evidence that competition improves schools, citing "small classes in the primary grades" as a more important factor in determining the quality of a school than any financial incentive.

Then there are questions about the administration of the money set aside for voucher programs. An audit of the Cleveland system found it went $2.9 million over budget in the 1997-1998 academic year.

And an earlier state audit, frequently cited by voucher opponents showed students using their public funds for taxi fares to and from their new schools, an expense that has since been eliminated.

Access: Are School Choices Available?

Opponents of vouchers say the system also provides no guarantees that students in poor public schools will be admitted at more desirable private schools.

"The non-public schools do the choosing," says LaCour. "They select the student. They will turn around students who they believe present behavior problems, and they will turn around kids who they believe will not be able to reach their performance level."

Opponents also cite the closing of four Milwaukee schools designed for the school-choice system as evidence that start-up schools do not have the staying power to provide students with better educations.

But some conservatives regard school closings as an inevitable consequence of competition among schools, and say market forces will substitute good schools for bad ones in the long run.

"They ought to go out of business," argues Garber. "Supply will take care of itself. Should any kid be forced to go to a non-performing school?"

And then there are separate but related questions about whether parents using vouchers will know enough about private schools in the areas where they live to make good decisions.

"What schools are they free to go to?" asks Linda Lenz, editor of the Catalyst, a journal devoted to the Chicago school system. "There is no real choice unless parents have information."

Church and State

An issue looming over the future of school voucher programs is their constitutionality. Opponents argue the allocation of government funds to private schools violates the separation of church and state.

In December, a federal appeals court ruled the system used in Cleveland unconstitutional because so many of the participating schools — more than 82 percent — were religious.

"There is no neutral aid when that aid flows principally to religious institutions," read the decision, "nor is there truly 'private choice' when the available choices resulting from the program are predominantly religious."

The case seems likely to head for the Supreme Court, which so far has resisted making a definitive ruling on the issue. The nation's high court declined to rule on a 1998 decision by the Wisconsin state Supreme Court that allowed the Milwaukee program to continue.

"I think the Supreme Court will find vouchers unconstitutional because it is unrestricted aid to a parochial school," says Jennings. But even if the court upholds voucher programs, controversy over their effectiveness will continue.