Vouching for Public Education

President George Bush wants us to believe that giving public-school parents vouchers so that they can send their kids to private schools is a civil rights issue.

He wants us to believe that the US Supreme Court decision to uphold a Cleveland voucher program allowing parents to use public money to send their kids to parochial schools was the equivalent of Brown v. Board of Education, the 1954 decision that ended segregation in the nation's schools.

"The Supreme Court in 1954 declared that our nation cannot have two education systems, and that was the right decision," Bush told a crowd in Cleveland. "Last week, what's notable and important is that the court declared that our nation will not accept one education system for those who can afford to send their children to a school of their choice and for those who can't, and that's just as historic." (The Washington Post)

The court, in a 5-4 decision, ruled that the Cleveland program gives low-income families freedom to choose between secular and religious schools and so does not amount to an official sponsorship of religion.

Bush and the conservative movement are using the decision to recast the voucher debate, moving it away from its free-market origins. Instead, they want Americans to believe vouchers are about civil rights and equal opportunity. They want to paint it as the panacea to reform urban schools.

But conservative support for vouchers has less to do with altruism than it does with free-market ideology. Conservatives have long hailed vouchers as their free-market fix for schools. Under voucher plans, families essentially receive tax money &emdash; previously earmarked for public schools &emdash; that can be used to send their children to any school in the city, public or private, secular or religious. Schools, therefore, are forced to compete for parents' money. If a school cannot prove it is educating students, parents will refuse to send their children. The money will then go to the schools that do a better job of educating students.

Experiments in the handful of cities that have experimented with vouchers have been inconclusive &emdash; studies can be found both to support and refute the conservative argument that vouchers improve test scores and education. An initial report on Cleveland's voucher program published by the American Federation of Teachers suggests that it has not been as effective as proponents have argued.

"While some studies suggest that vouchers are good for public schools, there is, as yet, little evidence that they ultimately improve the quality of public education for those who need it most," writes the National Education Association, a teachers' union that opposes the voucher plan.

More importantly, voucher programs drain money and draw the best students away from the public schools and are not accountable to the public.

According to the NEA, "vouchers drain already scarce resources from struggling schools that need them the most."

"In Milwaukee, where the voucher program costs taxpayers $39 million per year, the city avoided cuts in its public school budget only by passing a property tax increase to cover most of the shortfall," according to the NEA web site. "Cleveland's voucher program costs its schools an estimated $13 million per year. In both Milwaukee and Cleveland, a large percentage of voucher students never attended public schools, yet they still receive public funding to attend private and religious schools.

"Funds shifted away from public schools could make a real difference if invested in improving public education," the NEA says. "For example, for the nearly $40 million Milwaukee spends on vouchers for 8,000 students (with unproven achievement gains), it could place more than 30,000 students in proven programs such as the successful Student Achievement Guarantee in Education program."

In addition, there is evidence that vouchers tend to skim the best students from public schools. Stanford University Professor Henry Levin in a 1998 paper reviewed voucher and school-choice programs in the United States and abroad and found that vouchers lead to "greater socioeconomic and racial segregation of students," that "choosers will be more advantaged both educationally and economically than non-choosers" and that "inequalities in educational outcomes are likely to be exacerbated by vouchers." Essentially, families with greater economic resources have a greater ability to take advantage of voucher programs because they have better access to information and can afford transportation.

And there is the issue of application and acceptance. Not everyone who applies to a private school gets in &emdash; Catholic schools turn away two out of three applicants and exclusive private schools reject nine out of 10.

Vouchers will not improve our educational system. The only way to do that is to spend the money to train and hire good teachers, to reduce class sizes, to bring older schools into the 21st century, to build new schools where needed, to provide up-to-date texts and equipment.

And even that is not enough. We need to heal the societal ills that spill into our schools, the economic problems that lead to drug and alcohol abuse, broken homes and the like.

Education does not happen in a vacuum. It is part of the larger world.

Hank Kalet is a poet and managing Editor of the South Brunswick Post and The Cranbury Press. He can be reached via e-mail at