Why are vouchers an important idea?
...We've studied vouchers: whether or not they seem to help kids, and whether
or not families like them and what it's like to go to school if you do have a
voucher. And we find that the low-income families who participated in our
studies tell us that the discipline is much better. There's less fighting.
There's less cheating. There's less racial conflict. There's more tolerance for
children from other backgrounds. We find that the classes are smaller, that the
students say they like their teachers better. There are just a lot of good
reports coming back from parents. Now, when inner city, low-income families
tell me they're a lot happier if they have a choice as to where their child is
going to go to school, I think it's time for the rest of us to sit up and
You have a study out about vouchers in the Washington and Dayton schools.
Tell me about this new study....
Well, we found in both Dayton and Washington D.C. that vouchers have benefits
for African-Americans. We couldn't find the same benefits for other groups, but
for African-Americans, one year into the program, they were doing particularly
well in math, compared to the students remaining in public schools. There were
some reading gains, particularly in Dayton, but not as strong and not as clear in that case....
Was this a privately funded voucher program in Washington?
Yes...neither Dayton or Washington, [is] a publicly funded program. It's
privately funded, but it would function, one would think, pretty much the way a
publicly funded program would if it were a small, experimental program, such as
you have in Milwaukee or Cleveland.
Tell me a little about studies that you have done about Cleveland. How
successful has that [voucher program] been, academically, in Cleveland?
The two studies that have been done there show some gains in Cleveland. The
quality of the data is not as high as it is in the Dayton/Washington studies .
. . but the Cleveland results are not inconsistent with those that we got in
Dayton and Washington, DC. . . . Some gains in some subject areas . . . .
In general, I know there's been a lot of fighting within the educational
world over, "Are these voucher programs succeeding academically? Are they
really making a difference?" . . . Is it fair to describe the results [of your
study and others] as inconclusive?
I would say the results on parent satisfaction are overwhelmingly conclusive.
If parents are given a choice, they're very happy. They're much happier with
their private schools. On test score data, if you look at [them] across all
studies, you'd have to say the gains are fairly clear in math, after a year.
The gains in reading are less clear, more marginal. Studies differ. So one
might say, "Why math, not reading?" Probably because you learn everything in
math in school, very little outside school, whereas, in terms of reading,
you're picking up cues all over the place that are probably helping you, or not
helping you, to learn to read.
What do you say to the argument that . . . vouchers are a bad idea because
you're skimming the best students off of from bad public schools, leaving the
public school in even worse shape?
We don't find much evidence for that. We've looked for skimming in Cleveland.
We've looked for it in San Antonio and we've looked at it in Washington and
Dayton. And we haven't found much evidence of skimming. Maybe a little bit,
instead of "creaming", you get "2% milking"--just a slight difference between
those who take the voucher and those that don't--but it's such a small
difference that it should not be a major factor in whether or not you go
How about, though, in terms of not skimming students, but skimming motivated
parents? . . . So the school loses, potentially, the motivated parent who could
be running a PTA or doing something to improve this bad public school?
We've talked to a lot of parents in our focus groups, and we find them
incredibly frustrated when they try to exercise voice within the public
schools. They find that the school board won't listen to them. The central
office won't listen to them. They're very unhappy with principals and teacher,
frequently. These parents have tried to exercise voice, and exit is something
that they felt they had to do, given the fact that their voices weren't being
How do you get [a voucher program] going on a bigger scale that lets you
know if this can work?
First of all, you've got to settle the constitutional question. And I don't
think we're going to see too much scaling up until we get a resolution of the
constitutional question, at least by the Supreme Court of the United States.
And so, once that decision is reached, one way or another, we'll know whether
or not there's going to be growth or not.
And then secondly, it's going to be step-by-step because a very large question
has to do with supply, where the new schools will get created. Now we do have
some private firms out there that are trying to create new schools, and very
likely if we got larger vouchers--right now, the vouchers aren't large
enough--they should be probably twice as big as they currently are. Once you
increase the size of the vouchers, then new organizations will find it
attractive to offer an education that they claim is better than any existing
education and see if they can't get families to come to their schools. And
from there, you would gradually increase. But you're going to have increase the
caps. Right now, vouchers are being kept small by an artificial cap by the
legislature[s]. So, it's going to be political action that will decide whether
or not you're going to get a bigger program or not....
How do you avoid a situation where white parents who would rather not have
their children going to primarily minority, primarily African-American schools,
take vouchers and set up segregated schools?
In fact, we find very little of that. The vouchers that have been offered thus
far, have increased racial integration, increased ethnic integration, reduced
racial conflict. All of our evidence points in that direction. So, whether or
not this [is a] serious problem in the long run remains to be seen, [but] it
certainly doesn't seem to be a problem in the short run. Americans want good
education for their children. Americans are perfectly willing to have that
education with children from other racial backgrounds, if they can be assured
that the safety of their child, the discipline in the school, and the quality
of the education is to their liking. And private schools, thus far, are able to
tell parents, "We can do that."....
The argument against vouchers, one of the many arguments, is that voucher
programs are taking money away from public schools and some would argue,
hurting schools, financially, that are the least able to be hurt.
Actually, the public schools have more money per pupil after a voucher program
than before a voucher program for the simple reason that the money that follows
the student is state money. And all the local money stays with the local
school district. So they've got all the local school money that they would
have had anyhow, but they have fewer kids. So they got more money for less
kids. That means more money per pupil. So the public schools are benefiting.
They can have more money to spend to educate those kids that they have still at
What do you think about this whole church/state separation argument, that
what's happening in Cleveland is that taxpayer money is going to kids who are
then spending it in Catholic schools?
When you come to a court case, the courts have said, "There has to be an
educational benefit. The primary purpose of the legislation has to be
educational, not religious." What we see in Cleveland, Milwaukee, and other
places around the country is parents seeing major educational benefits. The
test scores data suggests there are at least some modest ones. Nobody's
identified any costs. The legislature says they want to do this for educational
reasons. So the case for the vouchers being constitutional in the first
instance, is that there are educational benefits.
And in the second case, there is no particular religion being privileged. That
is to say, nobody is being told to go to a particular kind of school. And, in
fact, you can send your child to a secular school--a public school, a charter
school, a magnet school--you have lots of other choices out there. So nobody's
being told they have to have a religious education. It's not that much
different from what we do at the college level. . . . At the present time, the
federal government is giving young people money to go to a Catholic college or
a Lutheran college or a Jewish college and I have no objection to that. And so
I don't see too much difference between that and whether or not they go to a
Catholic high school or a Jewish high school or a Lutheran high school. It
doesn't really make that much difference whether it's age 17 or age 18.
. . .
I think it's fine for children and their parents to decide where they want to
go to school. And I think it's very good for low-income people to have the
same choice everybody else has. Today, in this country, we have middle class
families making choices as to where to live and whether or not to send their
child to a private school. Low-income families don't have that choice.
Low-income families are in the worst schools. They do the least well in school.
Why not put everybody on the same level playing field? Give everybody a
choice, including our low-income families. I'm not saying we should go to this
overnight, but I think that's a serious question and we should be trying out on
an experimental basis ways of seeing whether or not that would get us to where
we want to be in terms of educating our population and providing equal
opportunity for low-income families.
Most of the students in the voucher program in Cleveland are
African-American students, and they are going to Catholic schools at the
moment. Is there anything wrong with that?
The fact that most of the kids are in religious schools says more about the
willingness of religious schools to throw these kids a life preserver than it
says about separation of church and state. This program invited all schools to
participate, including suburban public schools. Not a single one of those
districts agreed to allow low-income kids to come out there and attend their
public schools. The fact that the Catholic schools are enlisting and giving
these kids a chance should not render the program unconstitutional.
From my own experience, and also from looking at Cleveland, I know that
these Catholic schools are doing a fantastic job. . . . But there is no
mistaking that they're religious schools. These kids are going to Mass, and
they're getting religious instruction. Does that violate the
No, as long as a program gives parents the choice of where to send their
kids and does not create any sort of financial incentive for them to do so.
The fact that religious schools are among the options, or are prominent among
the options, should not be a constitutional problem. . . .
The irony is that, if you want to see a school in the inner city that is
racially diverse, economically diverse and religiously diverse, go to a
Catholic school. If you want to see ethnic balkanization, go to one of the
public schools in the inner city, where kids will not have any opportunity to
interact with kids outside of their economic or racial group. These schools
are havens of communities. They serve the communities in which they are
located. I think it adds to the ability of Americans to get along. . . .
In 21 states, at some level, state legislatures are considering a
voucher program. Do you feel like there is sort of a dam here, that once a
decision gets made once and for all, the floodgates are open?
I really do view this as the Berlin Wall, and the first bricks are already
coming down. Once those first bricks come down, the rest of them are coming
down really fast. It's not really a question of whether school choice is going
to expand around the United States, but when.
One argument you hear is that we have choice in this country: if you've got
the money, you can send your son or daughter to a private school. . . . So if
someone doesn't have the money, they should stay in the public school
We actually subsidize wealthier Americans to exercise school choice. If you
buy an expensive home in a really good neighborhood in order to take advantage
of a good school system, you get a massive tax break from your federal income
taxes on your mortgage payments. Low-income parents don't have that kind of
choice. What we've got to do is to say, "Listen, we've failed you in providing
you an educational opportunity. We're going to turn over to you the same power
that middle- and upper-income parents have, and that is the power to chose a
decent school for your child." We owe every parent in America that
Ninety percent of American kids are in public schools. There are a lot of
those kids--the children of the baby boom. If we change over to a voucher
system, there are not that many private schools. Aren't you going to have to
create a whole huge number of private schools, and do so fairly quickly?
If we were designing an education system today from scratch, it wouldn't look
anything like the system we have, where kids are warehoused in old schools with
very little technology. We're going to see education changing pretty
dramatically, and the lines between private schools and public schools are
going to blur, as private schools receive public funding. Public schools will
become less regulated and more able to act like autonomous schools, focusing on
their students rather than on political interests. That day will be
hastened--and I think it's a good day--when we give parents control of the
education funds that are meant for their children's education. One of my
favorite criticisms of school vouchers is that they are not sufficiently large
enough to purchase a decent education. I am willing to cave on that issue and
make them larger. . . .
One argument against voucher systems is that you tend to get the most
motivated parents, the parents who want the best education for their child.
They take that money from a failing public school and spend it in a parochial
school. That leaves the public school, which was bad to begin with, even worse
off, because they've lost money, they've lost a good student, and they've lost
a motivated parent.
Whenever I hear the argument about "cream skimming," that the best parents are
leaving the system, I always challenge the person who's raising that concern:
"Why don't you put your kids in these failing schools?" I haven't had a
volunteer yet. We cannot ask any parent in America to sacrifice her children
for some theoretical notion that it will make the school better. But beyond
that, it turns out that when you look at these programs, we're not talking
about cream skimming. The kids in these schools who are leaving are typically
poorer than the kids who are being left behind. And the reason for that is
really simple, when you think about it. If a child is doing well in the
school, then the child is not going to leave. If the child is not doing well,
that's when a parent becomes motivated to get an alternative. . . .
Some people we've talked to are afraid that part of your motivation, or
the motivation of others who support vouchers, is that you use vouchers for a
variety of things--not just to help black kids at failing public schools, but
to be spent for basically lots of religious schools around the country, and
I happen to be a religious non-believer but I'll tell you where I'm a
convert. I'm a convert to Catholic schools in the inner city. When I walk
down the hallways, I see a crucifix on the wall, but I also see education going
on in a safe environment. It seems to me that anyone who supports the goals of
public education has got to support using every possible alternative that we
can find to get that job done. . . .
One of the fears [of opponants to vouchers]--and, as an economist, you might
be able to address this--is that in a voucher program, you're taking away
financial resources from a failing public school, transferring them to the
private sector and leaving the public school in even worse shape. What do you
say to that?
That's a strange argument, in a way. Let me just go through the logic.
Typical per pupil spending in the United States is about $7,500 a year. That's
average per pupil spending in public schools in the United States. And, the
typical voucher in the United States is under $2000 a year. So, let's just say
that we had a public school system and a voucher program came into place, and
it was a typical voucher program, let's say $2000, typical public school,
$7,500. Even if the vouchers came completely out of the local public school
district's budget, every time they lost a student, they'd be losing $2000, but
they'd lose a whole student and $5,500 remains behind. Approximately every
time you lose about 26-27 students, you've actually gained a free teacher, in
some sense, in a typical public school in the United States. So, I think in
terms of just the finances, it's not clear that this isn't really a win-win
situation. It's not quite that simple, but you're not taking very much money
out of the public schools when you take out a whole student....
Many of the voucher programs that we actually have in place, of course, in the
United States, don't take the vouchers from the local school district budget.
That, in fact, is the norm, is to NOT take the money from the local school
district's budget. In that case, of course, the local district's budget is
pretty much protected and it has fewer students to take care of. So it can
spend that budget on reducing class size, on having better arts and music
teachers, having some sort of tutoring or remedial education, expanding some
form of extra curricular activities. It can do whatever it thinks is best with
If you could describe it from your point of view, what would an ideal
voucher system look like?
That's complicated, actually. An ideal voucher system would, first of all, be
universally available. I think that that's important, that it be universally
available....It has to be available to every student in the district or I think
it's not meaningful. If you only have it available to a very small group of
students, then there's always the concern that some small group is going to
remove themselves from the school district and leave behind a big group of
students who don't get to benefit very much from the voucher plan. And most of
the big benefits of vouchers are probably from generalized competition, as
opposed to benefiting just the students who actually take advantage of the
voucher. So you want it to be universally available.
That being said, the size of the voucher should depend, somewhat, on the
[pre-determined policy] goals . . . like the racial integration of the school
that the student is going to. Whether the school has, if it's a private
school, ...selective admissions or whether it admits students by a lottery or
on a first-come/first-served basis, which gives it much less opportunity to
select students. So you would want to give a larger voucher to a school that
doesn't have an opportunity to do selective admissions.
The voucher should, definitely, be means-tested. That means that very well off
families would get a very small voucher, perhaps even no voucher, if they were
really well off, and that poor families would get a larger voucher. The voucher
also has to take into account whether a student is disabled or costs more to
educate in some way, because you want disabled students to have opportunities
to make choices, and they're only going to be able to do that if the voucher's
big enough to cover the cost of educating them. We want schools to feel that
that child is a child that it needs to attract. . . .
What about the church/state issue? ...We've talked to several people about
this who are involved on opposite sides of the lawsuit in Cleveland, for
instance, over the voucher program because in Cleveland, most of those students
are going to Catholic schools. So the issue is, should tax payer money be
spent to send a child to a religious school? What do you think about
I think that the church/state issue is actually overblown when it comes to
school choice for the following reason. Right now we have small, essentially
experimental school choice programs. If you only have 1,000 students or 2,000
students in a voucher program, particularly if it's privately funded, and it
might not be around forever, what you're going to see happen is that people
will go to the existing private schools when these vouchers show up. The
vouchers are not big enough to allow someone to build a new private school and
we don't know that they're going to be around long enough for someone to want
to build new private schools. So, children take these vouchers to existing
It so happens that most of the existing private schools that are very
inexpensive are parochial private schools in the United States. But, if we
were to have a school voucher policy that was more universal or more general,
and if the size of the voucher were to be somewhat larger, instead of being
$1500 or $1000, it were to be something closer to per pupil spending in the
United States, even if it were only 2/3 of per pupil spending in the United
States, it would still be high enough so that what we would get would be
private schools that were created to take students who have vouchers. . . .
My guess is that if we were to have much more universal vouchers, most of the
private schools that would come into existence would not be religious private
schools. That's just my guess. I don't think Americans are sufficiently
religious so that they want to have their children in religious education and
they're willing to pay any sort of price for it. If you were to have a voucher
program, also, that said you get a bigger voucher if you send your child to a
school that doesn't have religious content then you do if you send your child
to a school with religious content, I guarantee a lot of parents would choose
the larger voucher and take their kids to church on Sunday, or to the mosque,
or to the synagogue.
What about the Cleveland voucher program? How do you assess that
Cleveland and Milwaukee are the only two voucher programs operating in the
country. Others are now coming along in Florida, and that is using a religious
school supply base. Opponents are concentrating on the First Amendment
separation of church and state as an argument to defeat the voucher programs.
I fully expect that the Supreme Court will decide that the First Amendment is
not a prohibition against voucher programs, as they had been constituted in
Milwaukee and in Cleveland. I wish that were an assurance the opponents would
then stop, but I'm reasonably sure they'll find some other reason to object.
The opposition essentially is that there should be no choice for parents, that
parents should be forced to send their children to the place where government
dictates it should go, should be taught the way the government dictates they
should be taught. If they don't like it, that's too bad.
The Cleveland voucher program is successful by every measure I can imagine.
There are 4,000 students in the program now. . . . The children are being very
well educated. They are involved in 60 private schools that they never would
have had a chance to go to otherwise. All this is going on and the Cleveland
school population has gone up by 5,000 students in the last five years, on top
of the 4,000 kids going to this program, on top of the 2,500 kids in charter
schools. So charter schools and voucher schools are educating children for
one-fourth to one-half of public school cost. If neither program had been in
place, Cleveland would now have another 6,500 kids that they're educating,
89,000 per year. It is such a bargain. But the opposition doesn't pay
attention to that.
This has been a fierce battle. Who is your opposition?
Our opposition is anybody who is somehow associated with the current public
education structure. The leading funder of the opposition appears to be the
national teacher unions. But right behind them are the school administrator
associations, the association of school boards, the law firms that do work for
the school systems, the accounting firms that work for school systems, the
colleges of education who are have terribly inbred relationship with both
unions and public schools. They all are saying that the current system may be
a bit difficult, but we understand it; we like it; we're in it. We don't like
something that may cost us our jobs. I fully understand their desire to defend
their turf. I am always mystified by people giving any weight whatsoever to
their objections, since it's 100 percent self interest that they're saying.
There's no logic to their opposition. Parents are the first line of direction
for the education of their children. The United States Supreme Court said that
in 1925, in Little Sisters of the Poor versus Oregon, in defending the right to
have private education at all in this country. They just didn't get quite to
the issue of how can we pay for that. People don't realize part of that the
government is trying to stop all private education. That's what the current
battle is all about.
. . .
Have you sort of withdrawn from the voucher battle, and are now engaged more
in charter schools?
I have not withdrawn from the battle at all. We
changed direction because we felt we had to. About a year ago, our parents in
our two schools in Cleveland were very concerned, because at that time it
looked like the Supreme Court of Ohio--which had not yet ruled--may well rule
against the program. . . .
The charter school legislation had just become effective in the previous fall
of 1998. That was not an option before. The funding of the voucher schools is
only $2,250 per child. The funding of the charter schools is $4,500 per child.
We were unable to pay sufficiently high salaries to keep our teachers at $2,250
per student. We didn't have the attraction of being a religious school. A lot
of teachers want to teach at a religious school, and they'll take less pay for
that. But we didn't have that. We were just like any other school--we had to
pay competitive salaries.
Combining all those reasons together, we decided to close our voucher schools
as of June, and coincidentally, charter legislation permitted us to open
schools in those same locations and that's what we did. But I probably feel
more forcefully than I ever have that vouchers are the answer for the problem.
Charters are a way station on the way to getting full choice through
What do you say to the opposition argument that vouchers drain away
resources from the public schools--the public schools, in particular, who least
can afford it?
It is such a spurious argument. It would be the same thing as saying that
WalMart should have legal protection to prevent you to going to a Target store
because you're talking money away from WalMart to go to the Target store.
After all, the costs go with the money. It isn't just that money is leaving
the public system. The student is leaving the public system. And there is no
question that, if the student leaves the city of Cleveland and moves to Akron,
the money goes with the child. Cleveland doesn't complain about that, nor
should they . But if instead of going to Akron, you go to some other school,
they say that's wrong. There's no logic to that. It is a very spurious
argument. The cost of delivery of education to the students there has been
reduced, because this is a reduced number of students.
I'm quick to acknowledge if only one or two students leave a classroom, there's
no savings to the school that lost the students. But that's the problem. No
choice program has yet been widespread enough to have the volume transfers that
are I think clearly waiting to happen, which will effect a substantial savings
in the cost of administering government schools. Since the alternatives are
about half as expensive, we will end up way ahead of the game financially. . .
what do the candidates say?·
how bad are public schools?·
is "choice" the answer?·
tapes & transcripts·
web site copyright 1995-2014
WGBH educational foundation