Too Many Children Left Behind


Paul Street & Dennis A. Kass 

In
an ominous 5-4 decision handed down on June 27, 2002, the Supreme
Court made “standard” claims of concern for poor inner-city
children in a decision that permits parents to use public funds
to pay for their children’s tuition at private and religious
schools. In an opinion that delighted right circles, the court ruled
that a public school voucher plan in Cleveland is a “program
of true private choice.” The plan, ruled Chief Justice Rehnquist,
is properly designed to meet the needs of “lower income and
minority families” poorly served by some of the nation’s
“worst performing public schools.” 

The
ruling reversed a lower federal court’s decision that the use
of public money for religious school tuition violates the constitutional
separation of church and state. As the New York Times accurately
reported the next day, the decision “moves the debate out of
constitutional law and into policy and politics, ensuring that school
vouchers will be a subject of contention from Congress to statehouses
to the presidential campaign trail for years to come.” 

Rehnquist’s
ruling received predictable support from conservative black Justice
Clarence Thomas, an opponent of affirmative action and other programs
meant to level the playing field for African Americans. As always,
Thomas behaved strictly in line with his original job description
by providing the requisite illusion of black approval for anti-black
policy. 


Racist and Rightist Origins 

School
vouchers are a highly contentious policy issue with particular resonance
in the black community. Following the establishment of several large-scale
voucher programs in the 1990s, the debate over vouchers has become
especially intense. The fundamental controversy surrounding vouchers
is whether or not public money should be used to pay for private
schools. The debate is focused primarily on disproportionately black
and Hispanic urban school systems. While support for vouchers has
tended historically to come from conservative whites, a significant
portion of the more liberal black community now tells opinion pollsters
that they support vouchers. 

The
history of the voucher movement dates as far back as the 1950s,
when vouchers were used as a tool for white families to escape school
desegregation as ordered by Brown v. Board of Education (1954).
At the same time, conservatives who were ideologically committed
to a market-based system of education supported vouchers in the
name of school choice. These early voucher advocates influenced
conservative political leaders to push for public subsidies to pay
for tuition and tuition tax breaks for private school families.
During the 1980s, then-President Ronald Reagan spoke consistently
in favor of school vouchers 

The
adoption of the Milwaukee program in 1990 reinvigorated the voucher
movement and led to the adoption of voucher programs in several
cities and states around the country. Large public voucher programs
were established in Cleveland and Florida in 1996 and 1999. A number
of private voucher scholarship programs sprouted in cities like
New York, Dayton, and San Antonio. States such as Minnesota, Iowa,
and Illinois have established tax breaks for families who send their
children to private schools. After unsuccessfully attempting to
create a federal voucher program, the current White House has established
tax breaks for families who use education saving accounts to pay
for private school tuition. 

The
recently passed federal education bill, titled the “No Child
Left Behind Act (NCLBA),” whose title is blatantly plagiarized
from the official slogan of the progressive anti-poverty Children’s
Defense Fund, gave vouchers a foot in the federal policy door. It
made parents of children in public schools that do not meet performance
standards for three straight years eligible to receive $1,500 of
federal Title I (poverty) educational funds. Those funds can be
used for private or public or transfer to a higher-performing public
school. 


The Pro-Voucher Argument 

Voucher
proponents begin by noting the obvious. They open by repeating a
well-known fact that the nation’s urban public education systems
serving disproportionately black and Hispanic poor students leave
their students woefully disadvantaged in the competition for higher
degrees and remunerative employment. Their case for vouchers as
the solution really begins with the claim that the threat of “free
market competition” will improve student achievement in public
schools as low-performing public schools scramble to improve test
scores to prevent a loss of students and public money to private
schools. They also claim that students who receive vouchers experience
improved performance, claiming that black voucher students’
standardized test scores are higher than black students who applied
for but did not receive vouchers. 

Voucher
proponents’ passionately proclaim that all parents should have
the “right to choose” where their child goes to school.
It is terribly unfair and essentially racist, they argue, that poor
and minority students are forced to attend poorly performing schools.
Vouchers, they argue, open the door of opportunity for these victims
of the liberal educational establishment and the “romanticized”
ideal of universal public education, permitting some at least to
be “saved” by attaining the chance to attend private schools
normally reserved for the middle and upper-class. 

Voucher
proponents also argue that there is strong public support for vouchers,
especially in the black community. They cite a 2001 Gallup Poll
of 1,108 respondents where 52 percent of public school parents supported
voucher programs. A 1999 poll conducted by the Joint Center for
Political and Economic Studies, a leading black think-tank, found
that the majority of 1,678 respondents favored vouchers. Sixty percent
of black respondents, and 72 percent of black respondents earning
less than $15,000 per year, supported vouchers. A 1999 Public Agenda
survey of 1,200 found that 68 percent of black respondents supported
vouchers.  

The
pro-voucher argument is based on a number of false premises and
strategic omissions. What follows are some of the key problems with
the case for vouchers and related difficulties with both the theory
and the practice of school vouchers to date. 

  


Vouchers Exacerbate Inequities 

Public
schools fail poor and minority students for a number of reasons,
including the nation’s remarkably inadequate and unequal structure
for allocating public school resources between and among schools
and school districts. Voucher programs will worsen that structural
inequity, draining money from the poorest public schools and providing
public subsidies to private schools that tend to privilege middle-
and upper-class students over children from economically disadvantaged
backgrounds. 

Voucher-based
competition generates negative outcomes that are not acknowledged
by voucher proponents. For example, researchers find that test-score
improvements in Florida public schools subject to voucher-based
market forces are the result of those schools’ practice of
“teaching to the test” in specific subject areas. “Teaching
to the test” means that teachers find out in advance the content
of standardized tests and then gear their curriculum to the exams.
It is the consensus of educational researchers that “teaching
to the test” is an extremely undesirable method for improving
student learning. In general, many people feel, the nation’s
obsession with standardized tests is anathema to the goal of creating
engaged, critically conscious citizens and all-around thinkers capable
of functioning in a democracy. 

At
the same time, public schools often respond to the demand for improved
performance on standardized tests by removing low-performing students
from official test-score tabulations. This is achieved by classifying
such students as “special” students: “limited-English,”
“bilingual,” “special education,” or “learning
disabled.” Voucher-based competition will compel public school
administrators to push more and more low-performing students into
“special” programs, in an attempt to artificially improve
test scores. 

Real
and meaningful school “choice” exists only when everyone
has reasonably good options from which to choose. It doesn’t
exist when parents and students must select between a good choice
and a bad one or when their access to “good” choices is
determined by lottery. All schools, including public schools, should
be equally funded institutions with high quality teachers.  

Voucher
programs’ promise of a meaningful “choice” between
public and private education for poor public school students is
largely an illusion for three basic reasons. First, the public schools
are often so inadequately funded and staffed and overcrowded that
they can’t possibly match the quality of education provided
in smaller and more selective private schools. Second, many students
in low-performing public schools do not have access to decent private
schools in their immediate geographical area. Under all current
voucher programs except Florida’s, moreover, access to private
school vouchers is regulated by lottery. Third, private schools
retain the right to deny admission to voucher students for a number
of reasons, including low test-scores, religion, gender, and behavioral
history. 


Inconclusive Research 

Leaving
aside the important question of whether or not standardized tests
offer a valuable measure of student performance and the educational
experience, existing research supporting the relationship between
student achievement as measured by tests and vouchers is extremely
problematic. Research on privately financed voucher programs shows
no consistent pattern of improvement across subject, grade, and
length of time. In a comprehensive study of a large-scale private
school voucher program in New York City during the 1990s, the leading
educational think-tank Mathematica Policy Research, Inc. found an
at-best weak relationship between vouchers and improved school performance
for students receiving vouchers. “On standardized tests,”
Mathematica found, “students offered a scholarship generally
performed at about the same level as students in the [non-voucher]
control group.” 

Research
on publicly financed voucher programs is also problematic. The official
research team designated by the Wisconsin state legislature to analyze
the Milwaukee voucher program concluded that voucher students performed
no differently on standardized tests than Milwaukee Public School
students. Students who received vouchers did no better than those
who applied, but didn’t receive them. Research on the Cleveland
voucher program finds that there may have been improvements in science
and language, but there was no improvement in other subject areas. 

The
non-partisan federal Government Accountability Office (GAO) concluded
recently that research on the academic benefits of public voucher
programs is inconclusive. “None of the findings” made
so far by academic researchers, the GAO concluded, “can be
considered definitive.” 

The
same 2001 Gallup Poll as the one mentioned above found that only
34 percent of all respondents support vouchers. The Joint Center’s
1999 poll found that 63 percent of the general public, 66 percent
of school parents, and 60 percent of voucher supporters admit to
knowing “very little” to “nothing” about vouchers.
When queried about their understanding of school vouchers, 80 percent
of the general public, 81 percent of parents, and 75 percent of
voucher supporters reported that they “need to learn more”
in order to have an intelligent opinion. 

Polling
questions on vouchers tend to be devoid of context and plagued by
abstraction. If the polls were properly constructed to gauge true
popular sentiment on vouchers, respondents would be asked if they
would support school vouchers over equitably funded and desegregated
schools with small class sizes and well-trained, highly motivated
teachers. The majority of respondents would certainly say “no”
to such a question. In fact, polling data suggests a great deal
more popular support for increasing and equalizing school spending
and desegregating schools than for vouchers. 

Especially
noteworthy in measuring real public opinion on vouchers is the sorry
performance of vouchers in the electoral arena. Every one of the
eight statewide voucher referendums that have reached state ballots
since the 1970s have been defeated. Since 1972, the highest vote
percentage received by a pro-voucher referendum is 36—this
in spite of the fact the voucher proponents have spent significantly
more money than voucher opponents to advertise their position. 


Subsidizing Private Schools 

In
Milwaukee, many private schools that accept vouchers charge voucher
students significantly more than non-voucher students. In fact,
one-third of Milwaukee’s private voucher schools’ charge
voucher students between 200 and 400 percent of the tuition charged
to non-voucher students. The total overcharge of voucher students
(and the public schools) is equivalent to 40 percent of the overall
expense of the city’s voucher program. In Cleveland, moreover,
one-third of vouchers go to students already attending private schools. 

Vouchers
allow the highest performing students with the most educated parents
to attend private schools, leaving the most disadvantaged behind.
In the long run, students whose parents do not have the financial
ability to keep them in voucher programs tend to drop out. Voucher
proponents concede this may be the case but then argue that the
“best and brightest” students are the most logical ones
to “save” from the failed public schools. This is fatalistic
zero-sum thinking. It would be more appropriate for those who support
quality education for poor students to advocate that all students
have quality opportunities. 

The
Supreme Court’s decision aside, publicly funded vouchers conflict
with the separation of church and state mandated by the United States
Constitution. Fully 85 percent of private schools in the U.S. are
religious. After removing private schools that are so academically
selective and expensive that vouchers don’t apply, the percentage
is even higher. Government programs that fund religious schools
even by mere default (reflecting the absence of non-religious schools
in many locales) violate the First Amendment. Public funding, either
direct (a government check to the school) or indirect (a government
check to the parents), for religious schools is unconstitutional.
As Supreme Court Justice David Souter noted in his dissent to the
June 26 decision: “In the city of Cleveland the overwhelming
proportion of large appropriations for voucher money must be spent
on religious schools if it is to be spent at all. The money will
thus pay for eligible students’ instruction not only in secular
subjects but in religion as well, in schools that can fairly be
characterized as founded to teach religious doctrine and to imbue
teaching in all subjects with a religious dimension. Public tax
money will pay at a systemic level for teaching the covenant with
Israel and Mosaic law in Jewish schools, the primacy of the Apostle
Peter and the Papacy in Catholic schools, the truth of reformed
Christianity in Protestant schools, and the revelation of the Prophet
in Muslim schools, to speak only of major religious groupings in
the republic.” 

Vouchers
generally provide insufficient funding for poor students to attend
private schools. The average voucher, both public and private, to
date is worth between $1,500 and $2,000; the voucher ceiling in
Cleveland’s plan is on the higher end of that range. Private
school tuition, especially at the high school level, costs considerably
more. Elite Chicago private schools like Francis Parker, the University
of Chicago Lab School, and the Latin School cost as much as $14,000.
The low level of most existing vouchers prevents poor students from
attending most private schools. 

The
tax breaks offered by the Bush administration through education
accounts are in essence public-private educational subsidies for
the middle class. To benefit from this tax policy, families have
to contribute money to an education IRA. Poor families living below
the poverty cannot contribute the federal maximum of $2,000 a year
to an account to pay for their children’s future private school
education. 

  Private
Schools rigidly control whom they accept for admission and limit
the pool of eligible students who use vouchers. While proponents
argue that voucher programs contain measures to prevent discrimination,
private schools can and do turn away students with learning disabilities,
limited English, or behavioral problems. In Florida, 93 percent
of the private schools will not accept students with vouchers. Some
Milwaukee schools have turned away all students with vouchers, while
others have turned away students based on ability, gender, and religion.
Many private schools make parental involvement and other special
investments of time and effort a prerequisite to admission. The
typical inner-city single mother who works one or more jobs, often
with a considerable commute, cannot meet such requirements. At the
same time, only students with quality private schools in their community
would even be in geographical position to benefit from voucher programs.
The poorest urban communities, not to mention virtually all rural
areas, would have considerably less access to such schools. 

There
is virtually no accountability in voucher programs. Leaving aside
the debate over the virtues of testing, private schools are not
required to test students, release test data, provide services for
special education or learning-disabled students, and even to hire
certified teachers. They are also not required to respect constitutional
protections such as free speech, due process, or equal protection,
and do not have to obey laws prohibiting discrimination on the basis
of sex, sexual orientation, marital status, or pregnancy. Milwaukee
dropped the requirement to monitor the achievement of voucher students
in 1995. 

The
voucher debate diverts attention from fundamental public school
reform topics that if properly addressed would make it seem ridiculous
for anyone to privatize education. School vouchers would be an insignificant
topic if the public school system was truly public and therefore
structured in such a way that all students received adequate and
equitable funding, small classes, high quality teachers, and appropriate
facilities simply by virtue of their status as citizens-to-be in
a virtuous commonwealth. As countless studies reveal, truly public
education in the United States is fundamentally challenged by local
school district’s extreme reliance on local private property
taxes to pay for basic operating expenditures. This reliance creates
extraordinary, “savage” school funding disparities that
reflect and reproduce America’s deep and related patterns of
hyper-segregation by race, class, residence, and private wealth
and power. Children in predominantly white and affluent property-rich
districts attend schools with significantly higher per-pupil expenditures
and far superior teachers, programs, and facilities compared with
those experienced by inner city students most in need of extra public
monies. 

Thanks
to the nation’s profoundly regressive school funding formula,
one of the major problems with the nation’s not-so “public”
school system is the extent to which it mirrors and exacerbates
existing private inequalities in American society. Like so much
of the public sector activity that the ideological shock troops
of the right and their business class sponsors love to label as
“tax and spend” liberalism and even “socialism,”
the actually existing “public” school system in America
really works largely to preserve and expand private privilege. 

Race
is strongly correlated with and linked to those inequalities. The
Harvard Civil Rights Project finds that 70 percent of black K-12
students attended predominantly minority schools at the end of the
20th century, compared with 63 percent in 1980. U.S. schools are
actually “re-segregating” in part because federal courts
have ended strong desegregation plans adopted after the landmark
1954 Brown v. Board of Education decision. One of the most
disturbing rulings by the federal judiciary invalidates school desegregation
across city-suburban lines, protecting the special advantage favored
by predominantly white property-rich school districts.   

Beyond
diverting attention from public schools’ funding needs and
desegregation issues, public school voucher programs like Cleveland’s
divert funds from public schools, thereby exacerbating precisely
the public school crisis that gives so much false progressive legitimacy
to the voucher movement in the first place. 

With
a horrifying new stamp of approval from the most aristocratic branch
of the world’s most powerful government, conservatives are
using vouchers to encourage disadvantaged people to accept the tragically
wrong notion that “free” market forces are “the only
way out” of the crisis of urban education. Black and Hispanic
community and civil rights leaders, social justice activists, and
the citizenry in general must not be fooled. At the same time, in
opposing vouchers, they should advocate for the democratic restructuring
of the school finance system and for meaningful school desegregation.
They should push for other reforms, including a reduction of the
nation’s dysfunctional minority-bashing addiction to standardized
tests and the development of non-totalitarian teaching methods and
course materials that inspire critical thinking and passionate public
engagement of the sort that is essential to a functioning democracy.
Unlike school vouchers, equitably funded and integrated public schools
with small classes, appropriate academic curriculums, and highly
trained teachers will expand opportunity for the disadvantaged students
in whose name voucher proponents wrap their regressive, falsely
progressive project.                                                    Z 


Paul
Street is vice president for Research and Planning and Dennis Kass
is Education Research Specialist at the Chicago Urban League.