the battle over school choice

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interview: paul e. peterson


Peterson is the Henry Lee Shattuck Professor of Government, Director of the Program on Education Policy and Governance (PEPG), and Director of the Center for American Political Studies at Harvard University. He is the author of Learning from School Choice and is an advocate of experimenting with voucher programs.
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 DC 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 [the gains were] 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 because in these other two places, we can do a more carefully designed study. But the Cleveland results are not inconsistent with those that we got in Dayton and Washington, DC....Some gains in some subject areas, pretty much....

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? And I'm sure we could have a long discussion of methodology here in some of these, which I don't particularly want to get into, but overall, is it fair to describe the results 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.

Given the somewhat limited gains, in Cleveland, do you think the investment in money in that program has been worth it?

Well, it really doesn't cost anything to do a voucher program. You actually save money because, with a smaller voucher than what you would be paying to send this child to the Cleveland Public Schools, they're getting, at a minimum, as good an educational experience--perhaps a little better one. So, on the cost side, it's actually saving the taxpayer money.

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 their schools....

What would you like to see, in terms of the voucher program?

I would like to see us try it out on a larger scale. So far, we've always had these small-scale interventions. The Florida design is a fairly attractive design. If a school is failing, then let's let the families have a choice and go to an alternative school. And then let's see if that works out. Let's try some programs out on a large scale. Let's not go wholesale and transform American education overnight. I think that's sort of silly, but let's not do nothing. That's also sort of silly. This is a serious problem. Kids are not learning in our central cities. Let's try the options that are out there.

Because it's very important that schools fail. We want bad schools to fail and go out of business. The traditional public school fails and stays in business. This is bad. This keeps students in schools that are failing. We want the school to fail, not the students to fail. The voucher option looks like it might have benefits. Certainly the parents love it. It has no downside. Nobody's been ever able to find any immediate bad effects. So, that suggests that you would scale up. You would try a bigger intervention than anything we've tried thus far, but let's not go wholesale overnight, all in one step.

Are you discouraged by some of the rulings [concerning the Florida program]? Just recently a judge said the Florida program was unconstitutional and a federal judge in Ohio said the Cleveland program was unconstitutional. That'll probably go all the way to the Supreme Court.

I think it is time for the Supreme Court to enter into the issue and resolve it one way or another, and I think it probably will in the Cleveland case. The District Court decision has been appealed. We'll have an Appeals Court decision probably sometime in this coming year. And, whichever way it goes, it'll probably get to the Supreme Court, and it's up to them to either take the case or not take the case.

They chose not to take the case in Milwaukee and let vouchers go forward in Milwaukee. So that suggests that the Supreme Court is not hostile to the concept of vouchers, but it's probably time for them to take the case and address it fully so that we can have a verdict by the final decision maker-- the controlling authority--as the phrase goes, on this question. What is it? Is this constitutional under the federal Constitution?

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.

Just on the personal level, quite aside from the courts, do you have any problem with the fact that a student in Cleveland would take voucher money and go get a Catholic education in a Catholic school?

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.

Now, just to press this last point one more time here....In Cleveland, you have taxpayer money, general fund money, going to pay [for the voucher program]. So, does that make a difference for you, personally? Does that matter? Or is that outweighed by improvements in safety, possible educational benefits?

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.

Alright. Big picture here. Pull back for just a second. The whole idea of vouchers. A lot of Americans know what this is. A lot of Americans, especially if you look at polls, don't have a clue what this is. 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 listen.

Politically--there was an op ed piece in the New York Times recently, by Floyd Flake, a minister in New York, saying that the voucher issue was an Achilles Heel for the Gore campaign; that how could the Vice President who, incidentally, has sent all his children to private school, turn around to a welfare mother and say, "We're not going to give you a voucher to allow you to choose where you send your child." Do you think that's correct? Do you think that's something that makes Gore politically vulnerable?

It is an irony in American politics that the greatest support for vouchers comes from low-income families, from black families, from inner city families where the schools are not good. And the Democratic Party is the party that has, traditionally, represented low-income families--black families, inner city families. Yet, they're not supporting vouchers. How long will this last? I'm not sure. . . .

The support for vouchers has always been diverse. There's been a conservative point of view on vouchers which says, "Let's turn education over to the private sector." And there's always been a liberal tradition that says, "Let's have equality of opportunity. The well-to-do have a choice of schools, let's give the poor a choice, as well." You can see that, back as far as . . . when vouchers were first proposed within the context of the poverty program. Whether or not this uneasy alliance can be held together over the long run remains to be seen because they don't agree on many other issues. I, myself, I'm a liberal Democrat and I find that I disagree with a lot of Republicans on a lot of issues, but I agree with them on this issue. And whether or not that is one--that's an alliance that has any stability or not--I can't predict. But I do think that African-Americans are the most likely group in the population to become enthusiastic supporters in years to come.

What's the biggest opposition to vouchers? Who are the forces most opposed to this?

The teachers' unions--they'll tell you that themselves--they make this their number one issue. They are more opposed to vouchers than any other issue, for the same reason that Bill Gates is. Bill Gates doesn't like competition. He doesn't like some other group out there trying to get business away from him. And if we have competition in education, the group that now has the monopoly is going to find it to their disadvantage. I don't think teachers, necessarily, will be unhappy. A lot of teachers are finding charter schools an attractive alternative to public schools in the traditional form. So, teachers may find a more competitive system to their liking, but not teachers' unions. I think that's where the core of the opposition comes from.

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, giving them a chance--throw them a life preserver--and then leave 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. I call, 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 ahead.

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 heard....

Now, in terms of competition, these days when you look at public schools, there's actually quite an array out there. You look at New York high schools--it's almost 31 flavors of education within the public school system. You can go to an environmental focus school, science focus school, the arts....There seems to be, at the moment, quite a bit of innovation and choice within the public school system.

Yeah, the [New York] public school system does a lot of creaming. It has a lot of selection. Its high schools are set up in such a way that you have to have a certain grade level, or you have to have a teacher recommendation, or you have to have certain kinds of test scores in order to get into the more attractive high schools. So the creaming problem is a serious problem in so far as we're talking about the public schools, especially at the secondary level. But, in general out there, the public schools are building good schools, but they're building it around the concept of creaming. Now, what's really sort of interesting about the private schools in the voucher program is, because of the fact that a lot of them have a religious emphasis, they are building their schools around some other principle than the principle of creaming and selection.

But who takes care of really the most troubled kids? Kids who are serious discipline problems? Kids who really are mentally unprepared?

One of the things we looked at was, are the private schools expelling kids? Because they're taking these children from low-income families--a lot of them look just like the other kids in the public schools--you would think that the private schools would be suspending or expelling kids. We did see some of that in Washington, DC among kids in grades in six through eight. They were having difficulty adjusting and you saw higher suspension rates. But with the younger kids, in particular, we didn't see that and we found that less than 1% are being expelled from the private schools. So, the question is, maybe you can create a different climate in the school where you don't have the same discipline problems. And the private schools seem to have found a way of creating a climate that's more educationally friendly. The weapon is always there. If you don't behave, we'll ask you to leave. But because that weapon is sitting there in the closet and the message is conveyed to the young children right from day one, you're getting a different sense of responsibility on the part of the children. [I] can't be sure on that, but that's what the evidence seems to suggest....

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, 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. 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."....

Politically, one of the things that interested me is that in Texas, when [vouchers] were proposed state-wide, the state legislature said no. And Governor Bush was not opposed to vouchers, but he didn't expend much political capital fighting to get them, either. He was not known as a big proponent of vouchers in Texas. Now, running for president, he seems to be much more inclined to support vouchers.

I don't think there's a big difference in George Bush's position in Texas and his current position. His current position says, "Yes, vouchers--if, after three years, a school is failing," an idea that he picked up from his brother in Florida. He hadn't quite articulated that position in Texas, but he was basically letting the Lieutenant Governor take the lead on this issue and saying that, in the meantime, I want to get test scores up and that's where I'm going to put my primary emphasis. And I think he's stayed with that as his primary emphasis in the presidential campaign.

It's a little unusual that we have a campaign that's focused so much on education, isn't it? At the presidential level? Especially when we have only 7 to 8% of public school funding coming from the federal government?

A lot of good things are happening in the United States today. We're a wealthier country than we used to be. People are making more money. The welfare problem had been reduced. The crime rate is down. The one thing that is not good is American education. Politics usually focuses on what we need to work on, and education is what we need to work on right now.

Now, when you say, "Public education is not good in the United States," isn't it really in particular areas that it's not good? And let me just give you one example--Shaker Heights, Ohio. We went to the high school there. It's an extraordinary public high school. It's not perfect. They still have problems in black/white test scores, for instance, but it's a school that's had a great academic reputation for a long time. It doesn't seem to me that there's a crisis in public education in Shaker Heights.

I think that we are doing fabulously as an economy, in part because we're bringing a lot of brilliant immigrants from abroad, for whom there are plenty of opportunities in the American economy because we're not growing our own. It's not clear that we are doing as well, with our very best students as we should be doing, given the great resources this country has. How come we don't have the really top-performing students, or as many of the top-performing students, as you would think the United States should be able to produce? At the same time, we know that, among minorities and among inner cities families, among low-income families, the system is obviously failing.

So, I think we have problems throughout the system. Yes, the American educational system may be almost as good as it used to be, but it sure hasn't been improving. And everywhere else in our society, things are a lot better. We have better cars. We have better TVs. We have bigger houses. Wherever you look, things are better, but not in education. They may be as good--maybe not as good--[but] they certainly aren't better....

Why is that our test scores aren't going up, decade by decade? Year by year? Why is it that the Japanese continue to out-perform us? The Taiwanese? The Koreans? Why can't we be the best in the world? We're the best in every other area. Why can't we be the best in education? Why do we have to take mediocrity as about right for the United States.

And, when you say that, are you talking about elementary and secondary education? Or do you include our universities in this?

The United States has been fortunate to have great universities. And we still have students coming from all over the world to study in the United States, so there must be something that's bringing people here. Universities are more competitive with one another. They compete for teachers. They compete for students. It's an environment where being better counts. Elementary and secondary--that same sense of competition isn't there. There's probably plenty that could be improved in American higher education--I don't want to say there isn't--but I think the biggest problems are in the first 12 years.

And you would say, when Americans say, ''What works in K through 12 education?"--What? What do you think does work? And then, again, what doesn't work? What's the biggest problem?

If we knew what worked, it would be so easy to fix, but because we don't know what works, that's why we have to have competition. That's why we want to let a 1000 flowers bloom. See what happens on the ground. Try things out. Take an experimental attitude. Those who discover what works can then spread the gospel to others, and we'll see, as a result, improvements across the board, up and down the line, not overnight, but in the long run--maybe in the course of the next decade.

Don't we know a lot already? That, to a certain degree, a smaller class size, perhaps less anonymous experiences in high schools, better trained teachers, more enthusiastic teachers, a decent level of of financial support [improve schools]?

All of these possibilities may be part of what works. Certainly, a good leadership counts and committed teachers count, and taking advantage of the new technology counts. There are lots of things out there that count. But, what's the right package and how to put it together? I think there's a lot yet to be learned, and we'll only learn it if we ask the people in the system to try different things out and to compete with one another to show that what they've got is the superior product. That's exactly what we do in every other sector of society, why shouldn't we do it in education?

President Clinton, you know, in his State of the Union actually said, ''When I was first President, there were almost no charter schools--now there are 1700. Let's double it overnight.'' So he's a convert now to charter schools.

I think Bill Clinton has always been for charter schools. Whether or not he would go for a full scale? How far does he want to go in terms of charter schools? And how far does Al Gore want to go? That remains to be seen. If [charter schools] turn out to be politically popular, I think presidents will support them whether they're Republicans or Democratic presidents. The real issue right now is at the state level and whether the states will lift the number of charters. Are we reaching an upper limit as to the number of charters that are going to be offered by our states? Or are the states going to go and expand, once again? It's a little unclear. I see a little hesitation in the charter school movement, right now. I don't see it moving to the next level as quickly as one might have thought a year or two ago.

We visited some terrific charter schools in Ohio, but they've also had some problems and closed down a couple of charter schools in Ohio. And I know the State Superintendent of Public Instruction there is saying, "We've got to have more accountability here and maybe we slow this process down of chartering schools so rapidly."

But we won't have success in American education until we have failures. Because it's very important that schools fail. We want bad schools to fail and go out of business. The traditional public school fails and stays in business. This is bad. This keeps students in schools that are failing. We want the school to fail, not the students to fail. And once we learn that bankruptcies and failures are as important to success in education as they are in every other aspect of our society, then we will be moving ahead, we will be making progress....

We have a wonderful example of that in Michigan where charter schools were established. The families were taking their kids out of the traditional public schools, sending them to the charter schools. The public school system was losing money and the only way it could keep the state from taking over was to turn it over to a private company and asking them, ''Would you please save the day?'' Now, that's the kind of thing that failure can produce--hope for the future....

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