Educational Vouchers: Multiple Issues and Contradictory Results
The Merriman-Webster online dictionary offers three definitions for "voucher": "...a documentary record of a business transaction; a written affidavit or authorization; a form or check indicating a credit against future purchases or expenditures." None of the three even approaches the emotionally charged version of the term "voucher" when it comes to the current debate swirling around public vs. private schools. This paper digs into the "vouchers" - or "scholarships," or "subsidies," if you prefer - provided to families in several cities and states, to move their children from less desirable, academically troubled public schools to more desirable, for-profit private, mainly religious schools.
Long before there was any discussion about vouchers, Horace Mann of Massachusetts - the "Father of American public school education" - was in the vanguard of the movement (1837) to solidify support for quality public education, excellence in teacher training, and free libraries (North Carolina State University, 2003). As the first Secretary of the Massachusetts State Board of Education, Mann won financial support for public schools and doubled the wages of teachers. Later, his influence extended well beyond his home state. His "Common School Journal" (1841-1848) advocated - successfully, in most cases - for taxpayer support of public schools, that it was every child's American right to a free education, and that religious schools should pay their own way.
Meanwhile, in the late 1870s, the voucher concept's likely genesis emerged through the writings of English philosopher John Stuart Mill (Howell & Peterson, 2002). Mill, a celebrity thinker in the UK, favored compulsory pubic education albeit he insisted families should have the right to choose their children's schools. About his turbulent times, he said England was a "...battlefield for sects and parties, causing the time and labor which should have been spent in educating, to be wasted in quarreling...." Little could Mill have known that today, roughly one hundred thirty years later in the American educational system, there truly is a battlefield between the proponents of voucher system and those against taking money away from public schools. It pits a loose conservative coalition up against a loose coalition of unions, liberals, and church vs. state hard-liners.
Milwaukee & Cleveland and Evaluation Issues
Credit for the initiation of the American school voucher concept generally goes to economist Milton Friedman, who, in the 1955-57 period, with his wife Rose, argued vigorously for vouchers. "Governments...could finance [education] by giving parents vouchers redeemable for a specified maximum sum per child per year if spent on 'approved' educational services," he said. "Parents would then be free," Friedman continued, "to spend this sum and any additional sum on purchasing educational services...of their own choice" (Howell & Peterson, 2002).
Among the first of several large cities to launch large voucher programs were Milwaukee, Wisconsin (1990), and Cleveland, Ohio (1996). In Milwaukee, the voucher program (Milwaukee Parental Choice Program - MPCP) began with 7 private schools, 300 voucher students, and roughly $700,000 paid to parents of those 300 students. By the 2000-2001 school year, an estimated 9,600 students were paying to attend 103 private schools - at a cost of $49 million. And so, the next question logically is how has the program been doing? What are the data to show whether students attending private schools are improving (since leaving their public schools) - or to show that there is little change, little advancement in the learning among the voucher students? This is where the evaluative difficulties enter into the picture of assessment.
A highly respected research team led by Kim K. Metcalf (Metcalf, 2002), of the Indiana Center for Evaluation, has studied the studies and the original program research. Utilizing the exact same set of data from the Milwaukee voucher program, "...three different teams of researchers produced three different results," Metcalf states in the report, titled "Interpreting Voucher Research: The Influence of Multiple Comparison Groups and Types." Metcalf continues [lengthy research team lists omitted for space purposes; all researcher names are found in Metcalf's above-mentioned report]:
One team of researchers found no significant impact on students' achievement after four years; a second team found significant positive impacts in reading and mathematics after four years; and no third team found no significant impact in reading, but a significant impact in mathematics after four years. Data that are available from the first two years of the voucher experiment in Cleveland have similarly been subjected to varying analytic approaches producing differential results. (Metcalf, 2002)
Another researcher looking into the Milwaukee voucher issue is Isa Snell, who is Director of the Education and Child Welfare Program at Reason Public Policy Institute (RPPI). She flatly states that, "Over the past 10 years in the Milwaukee school system, the performance of students attending public schools has improved dramatically." As to specifics, she states (RPPI Web site, 2002):
Between the 1997-1998 and 1999-2000 school years, the national percentile rank of MPCP fourth-grade students improved from a 36 percentile ranking to a 50 percentile ranking in math, 29 to 51 in science, and 35 to 52 in social studies."
The Wisconsin Education Association Council (WEAC, associated with NEA & NTA) reports that University of Wisconsin (Madison) professor John Witte evaluated the empirical data from the MPCP and "...found no achievement differences between voucher students and comparable Milwaukee Public School students" (Witte, et al., Fifth Year Report: Milwaukee Parental Choice Program, U of W-M, 1995). However, Professor Witte's data was re-analyzed by Professors Jay Greene (U. Of Houston), Paul Peterson, and Jiangtao Du (Harvard), and concluded that Milwaukee's voucher students outperformed public school students in math and reading, according to WEAC.
The Witte, et al., re-analysis, WEAC contends: "...focused on students in only 3 of the 20 private schools in the voucher program." Also, WEAC continues, "The charts contained in the report show that results are only statistically significant for math in the 4th year of the program. There was no statistically significant student voucher advantage in reading any of the 4 years."
Meanwhile, if those contradictory studies of the same research data aren't confusing enough, toss in three more issues to the Milwaukee project. One, the issue of how special education students fare when using the voucher system. The Milwaukee program, by law, cannot discriminate against disabled students. However, the private schools receiving voucher students are not obligated to provide any special education services, something of a catch-22. Two, voucher schools generally have no requirements with respect to academic standards, curriculum, or teacher certification, a concern to many parents (no matter how poorly some public schools are administered). And three, it should be noted that the vast majority of voucher schools are run by the Roman Catholic Church. Only recently were Milwaukee voucher parents allowed (in a move by the state legislature) to allow their children to "opt out" of religious studies, but in Cleveland, the church vs. state voucher issue went all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court.
Cleveland and the Supreme Court Decision
By the year 2000, more than 80% of Cleveland's private schools accepting voucher students were religious. And because 96% of all voucher students attended these schools, that added up to Cleveland's Catholic schools receiving $3.3 million a year from taxpayers, according to an investigative piece in the Akron Beacon Journal (Neas, 2001). Add to that the fact that most of Cleveland's Catholic schools did not allow voucher students to "opt out" of religious classes, and the seeds for a lawsuit were sewn. The fact that voucher students were required to stand and say, "I pledge allegiance to the Christian Flag and to the Savior for whose Kingdom it stands..." was used by the U.S. Court of Appeals to justify the upholding of a lower court ruling. That ruling permanently enjoined the Cleveland voucher program on the grounds that it unconstitutionally advances religion, finding that:
when, as here, the government has established program...which restricts [student] choice to a panoply of religious institutions and spaces with only a few alternative possibilities, then the Establishment Clause [separation of church & state] is violated" (Neas, 2002).
Meanwhile, by June 27, 2002, the case had reached decision time at the Supreme Court, and on a 5-4 vote (five Republican justices voting for vouchers; 4 Democrat justices voting against vouchers), the Court, in effect, gave voucher promoters the victory they had long sought. Among the victors celebrating the decision was President George W. Bush, who had campaigned for president in support of vouchers, and, indeed, interestingly, whose election was assured in 2000 by the same 5-4, party-line vote of the Supreme Court (which halted the counting of disputed ballots in Florida). In his opinion explaining the rejection of church vs. state, Chief Justice William Rehnquist built the foundations for his case by pointing out how grim the Cleveland school system was prior to vouchers coming into play in 1996:
The district had failed to meet any of the 18 state standards for minimal acceptable performance.
Only 1 in 10 ninth graders could pass a basic proficiency examination…