As promised during the campaign, President Bush has given priority to education in his proposals to Congress. Reading election returns and polling data indicating resistance to private school vouchers, Bush tried to soft pedal his most radical ambitions and concentrate on areas of broader consensus. Nonetheless, the president still intends to "make his case" on vouchers. Though Democrats and moderate Republicans will likely win this battle, they would do well not only to make the case against vouchers but also to delineate progressive alternatives.
Scholars have debated results of earlier voucher experiments for over a decade. Though voucher proponents argue that giving children the opportunity to leave failing public schools boosts educational performance, results appear at best mixed. Martin Carnoy has provided a careful summary of the literature in the Jan. 1 issue of The American Prospect. He points to deficiencies in the control groups with whom voucher recipients have been compared. Most studies have failed to draw a random sample of those students from urban public schools whose parents did not apply for vouchers. These parents were presumably more satisfied with their schools. Follow-up tests to measure success of the private schools have been voluntary and participation has been low. Results may be subject to a self-selection bias. Those children for whom schools have been a positive experience may be more willing than others to take the voluntary evaluations.
Even were one to concede that children transferring to private schools do accomplish more than equivalent peers in public schools, our policy conclusions should be guarded. These private schools may be doing well not because they are private but because they often benefit from smaller class size and more adequate facilities.
Policy makers must consider not only the educational effects on students who leave public schools but the burdens imposed on those who remain within the system. Under Bush's proposal, students would be free to take a Federally subsidized voucher and leave schools failing to achieve gains on standardized tests within a three year period. School committing themselves to this experiment would receive enhanced Federal subsidies. Unfortunately, the amount of money being offered is far too little to fix the massive inequities and long term underfunding of the poorest schools. Judging those schools by one standardized test will even exacerbate their problems. It will discourage creative teaching and drive the best teachers away.
Bush's proposed vouchers themselves are too parsimonious. $1,500 will not pay tuition at even a mediocre private school. $1,500 would probably allow some middle and upper middle class students more easily to leave public schools, but less affluent children would be left behind. At this point a destructive dynamic would unfold. More wealthy parents, who already wield disproportionate political influence, could no longer be counted on to support the state and local taxes upon which vigorous public education has depended. Public schools would deteriorate and their students might fall further behind.
Progressives ought to fight for more generous and equitable public education. There is solid evidence on how not only in recent Rand Corporation studies but from international comparisons as well. Smaller class size, more emphasis on teacher training, and better and more inclusive early childhood programs have consistently advanced educational excellence.
If the president wishes to insist on vouchers, progressives should turn the tables on him. An adequate voucher system should provide equal educational empowerment to all. Every student should have the opportunity to attend a school as well funded as Exeter. Since vouchers of this magnitude for the entire school age population would be prohibitively expensive, funding should be concentrated on those who most need it. Robert Reich has suggested a progressive voucher arrangement under which the poorest parents would receive the largest educational voucher, with amounts scaled back as parental income increases.
Public education is at a crossroads. Public education has always been both a product of and support for deepening political democracy. Republicans rightly insist that public accountability must accompany new public funding. But they are wrong in suggesting that accountability can be achieved best through standardized tests and a right of exit to the relatively better off. And when such exit risks destroying the schools and students who remain behind, it is irresponsible.
Accountability within a more equally and adequately funded public school system can be achieved by giving parents more choices within that public school system. With more adequate funding for smaller class sizes and better teacher training, public school systems would offer more options. Charter schools working within the public school system might experiment with collaboratively designed evaluation systems for teachers, staff, and students. Fashioning more equal and more open public schools will be the best way both to advance education and restore faith in democracy.
John Buell lives in Southwest Harbor, Maine, and writes regularly on labor and environmental issues. He is co-author, with Etta Kralovec, of The End of Homework: How Homework Disrupts Families, Overburdens Children, and Limits Learning (Beacon Press). He invites comments at email@example.com