If you believe John Tierney, (see article below) school vouchers are the holy grail of education reform. I don't buy it. And you shouldn't either. Here is just a sampling of the reasons why:
- From the ADL:
Superficially, school vouchers might seem a relatively benign way to increase the options poor parents have for educating their children. In fact, vouchers pose a serious threat to values that are vital to the health of American democracy. These programs subvert the constitutional principle of separation of church and state and threaten to undermine our system of public education.
According to the ADL, school vouchers are constitutionally suspect, undermine public schools, and are not universally popular. Read more.
- Free-Market Education:
There's no guarantee of quality in Milwaukee's voucher schools. A disturbing number of voucher schools are little more than refurbished, cramped storefronts.
- Seed Money for Conservatives:
Department of Ed funds flow to privatizers and voucher supporters.
- Distorting the Civil Rights Legacy:
School-voucher supporters misuse the lessons of segregation to push their agenda.
- Vouchers: Special Ed Students Need Not Apply:
Charter and voucher schools are required to do very little to accommodate students with special needs.
- The Conservative Connection:
Many conservatives oppose affirmative action while supporting school vouchers. Take a look at the ideology behind both issues.
City Schools That Work
By John Tierney
The New York Times
At first glance, the near north side of Milwaukee can be a bleak place, now that it has lost the department stores, factories and other businesses that used to thrive there. But if you want to see inner-city children getting a good education, it's the most beautiful spot in America.
The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel refers to one of the area's arteries, North Avenue, as the Main Street of School Reform because of the new schools that have opened since the city's radical experiment in education began 15 years ago. At that time, there were two newspapers in Milwaukee, the liberal Journal and the conservative Sentinel, and they both editorialized against the new school-voucher program.
Now there's one combined newspaper with a different point of view. The Journal Sentinel, which endorsed John Kerry in 2004, has parted company with the Democratic Party on the voucher issue. It backed Republican efforts this year to expand the program, which has led to the creation of dozens of new private schools in Milwaukee.
"We've seen what school choice can do," said Gregory Stanford, an editorial writer and a columnist at the paper. "It's impressive to go around to the voucher schools and see kids learning. Their parents are much more satisfied with these schools. And the fears that the public schools would be hurt have turned out to be wrong."
In fact, the students in public schools have benefited from the competition. Two studies by Harvard researchers, one by Caroline Hoxby and another by Rajashri Chakrabarti, have shown that as the voucher program expanded in Milwaukee, there was a marked improvement in test scores at the public schools most threatened by the program (the ones with large numbers of low-income students eligible for the vouchers).
The competition spurred the public system to shift power from the central administration to individual schools, allowing councils of parents and teachers to decide who should teach there, instead of forcing the schools to accept incompetent teachers just because they had seniority.
"Poor teachers used to shuffle from one school on to another in what we called the dance of the lemons," says Ken Johnson, the head of the school board. "But we couldn't let that continue once our students had the option to go somewhere else. We had to react to students' needs. We had to start seeing them as customers, not just seat-fillers."
Some of the new voucher schools have flopped — but the advantage of a voucher program is that a bad private school can be shut down a lot faster than a bad public school. And while critics complain that there still isn't definitive evidence that voucher students are doing better over all in their new schools, the results so far in Milwaukee and other cities are more than enough to declare vouchers a success.
"All the good research, including the voucher opponents' work, shows that kids who accept vouchers are doing at least as well as their public school peers," says Joseph Viteritti of Hunter College. "That's remarkable, considering how much less money is being spent on the voucher students."
In Milwaukee, where the public system spends more than $10,000 per student, private schools get less than $6,400 for each voucher student. But when you see what can be done for that money, you realize what's wrong with Democrats' favorite solution for education: more money for the public-school monopoly.
At the CEO Leadership Academy, a high school with 125 students in the new wing of a Baptist church, you find students who compare the school to a family. They rhapsodize about small classes, teachers who stay after school to help them and the feeling that the school is a calm oasis from the streets — not what they got in their old public schools.
"When I first heard about this school, they told me the school day's longer and you have to wear a uniform," said Elliott Barnes, a ninth grader. "I didn't like that at all. But then I walked in here and noticed right away how many people were smiling in the hall. In my public school, when a stranger smiled at you there, you started worrying."
The school principal, Denise Pitchford, worked in the public schools, but she took a pay cut in exchange for less red tape. "I wanted the flexibility to give immediate personal attention to every student," she said. "To me, it represented less money but a better opportunity." Just like the whole voucher program.
Photo credit: John Tierney (Fred R. Conrad/The New York Times)