the battle over school choice

homewhat bush & gore saydiscussionhow bad is it?school choicemy state
the case for vouchers
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.

read his interview

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.

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?

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. 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 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....

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 their schools....

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.

clint bolick

Bolick is co-founder and Director of Litigation for the Washington D.C.-based Institute for Justice, begun in 1991 as the "nation's only libertarian public interest law firm" and as an alternative to the American Civil Liberties Union. The Institute for Justice represents parents and children in various legal cases across the country in support of school choice, including the Cleveland, Ohio lawsuit regarding a publicly funded scholarship program, where the Institute has joined with the state of Ohio to defend the state's voucher system.

read his interview

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 Constitution?

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 system.

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 opportunity.

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?

We cannot ask any parent in America to sacrifice her children for some theoretical notion that it will make the school better. 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 even homeschooling.

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. . . .

Caroline M. Hoxby

Hoxby is Associate Professor of Economics at Harvard University and has conducted research examining the value of competition to public schools.

read his interview

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 the money....

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 that?

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 private schools.

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.

david brennan

Brennan is Ohio's largest operator of a publicly funded, for-profit school business, the White Hat Management Company, and an Akron, Ohio entrepreneur, developer, attorney, and major Republican Party donor. Brennan helped initiate the Cleveland voucher program in the mid-1990s and his White Hat company is now a major operator of Ohio charter schools, including Hope academies and Life Skills schools.

read his interview

What about the Cleveland voucher program? How do you assess that experiment?

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.

vouchers are the answer for the problem.  Charters are a way station on the way to getting full choice through vouchers. 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 vouchers.

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. . . .

More.... the case against vouchers.

home what do the candidates say? discussion how bad are public schools? is "choice" the answer? my state
video excerpt interviews links synopsis tapes & transcripts press
FRONTLINE pbs online wgbh

web site copyright 1995-2014 WGBH educational foundation