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Richard D. Kahlenberg and Bernard Wasow do a good job of summarizing a number of the fundamental flaws of private-school tuition vouchers, although they give short shrift to some of the accountability problems that vouchers present. Almost daily, new stories come out—especially in Florida—of the latest ways that shady operators have found to take advantage of lax oversight of public funds intended for the education of children.1
With no evidence that vouchers can improve student achievement and inadequate accountability that invites abuse, it is difficult to make the argument for vouchers as an education reform.
Kahlenberg and Wasow argue for a “third way” between trying to improve existing public schools and abandoning public schools with vouchers. A number of states and school districts have experimented with public-school choice options, including the magnet schools, controlled-choice, and alternative schools the authors mention, as well as district-wide and even statewide open enrollment.
The most famous example, East Harlems District Four choice plan, established a number of specialty schools that focused on college preparation, performing arts, development of gifted-and-talented students, and other concentrations. An article in the Atlantic Monthly in November 1992 attempted to sort out what the benefits of choice were—distinct from other aspects that made the District Four experiment unique. Indeed, many students who participated in the program performed better on standardized achievement tests, but there were a number of factors that affected education quality, including smaller class size and smaller school size, made possible in part by additional resources. At one time, more federal money was provided per pupil for District Four students than for any other district in the nation. (See http://www.theatlantic.com/politics/educatio/kirpf.htm.)
There are, however, a number of benefits of expanding choices within the public schools, including parent satisfaction; addressing individual student’s interests and strengths; and enhancing the diversity of schools, especially economic diversity.
Research—and common sense—support the theory that it is easier to serve a smaller number of economically disadvantaged students in a school with a majority of middle- and upper-income students than it is to serve a large concentration of economically disadvantaged students isolated from the larger community. Economic diversity in education does work, and if controlled choice can enhance that diversity, school districts ought to do more to encourage it.
The National Education Association and its affiliates have supported public-school choice, including magnet schools, alternate schools, and intradistrict open enrollment. But no one should believe that choice alone will bring about the kind of dramatic improvement parents and the public want. Kahlenberg and Wasow do not offer evidence that choice alone can have an impact on school quality, outside the theoretical but unproven argument that competition will spur schools that are struggling to improve.
There are a variety of factors involved in making choices that do not always revolve around quality. Studies have shown that parents frequently choose a school for their children based on proximity to their home or work, a reputation for athletics, or other non-academic factors.
Policy makers would do well to give up the fruitless search for the one big thing that will transform American public schools. Genuine reformers will look to teachers and teacher organizations as their allies. Parents and teachers agree on what the priorities for school improvement should be, and their agenda is supported by strong research evidence:
Parental Involvement. Regardless of income, parents can have a dramatic impact on the ability of students to succeed. No government program can really address parental involvement, but communities can create a stable and caring place for children to go—in neighborhood schools and after-school learning centers.
Class Size and School Size.Too many classrooms have too many students for teachers to be able to provide the kind of individualized attention that children need. Some people learn more from hearing, others from reading, and others most effectively through hands-on experience. One of the features of private schools that many people like is class size—frequently as small as 12 or 15 students. Reducing class size can also make schools safer and more orderly—meaning more time to teach and learn.
In a similar way, the total enrollment of too many schools is far too large. A relatively smaller school population lends itself to greater safety and order and makes it easier to establish a sense of community. In smaller schools the teachers can get to know the students, not just the ones they have in class, and parents have a greater ability to feel a part of the community as well.
Teacher Quality. Research shows that teacher quality—knowledge, skills, and experience—makes a tremendous difference in student achievement. Perversely, too many policy makers concentrate on shortcuts to make it easier for individuals to enter the classroom as teachers, skipping the kind of coursework in student learning styles and student teaching experiences that will help them be effective. We should expect more from teachers, and we should pay them and other education employees consistently with our expectations for their work.
Teaching is physically, intellectually, and emotionally challenging work. To be effective, a teacher must know the subject matter, certainly, but must also understand different learning styles and have a repertoire of teaching strategies that help different learners master the subject.
There are many different factors that address teacher quality. If we are serious about having highly qualified teachers, we must have a comprehensive approach that includes better preparation programs, high standards for entry into the profession, mentoring and induction programs for new teachers, evaluation procedures that identify strengths and weaknesses, ongoing professional development, and incentives for teachers to continually improve their skills and work in challenging areas.
In short, there are no easy answers to complex challenges. Radical school improvement will require greater parental and community involvement; a commitment to high standards and strong accountability; mechanisms for helping students, teachers, and schools that are struggling; and resources to reduce class sizes and enhance teacher quality.
Controlled public-school choice has been utilized as part of that comprehensive strategy, but unless the plan takes into account the other elements of school quality, it is simply another doomed experiment.
1. Education “consultants” in Florida arrange for parents who home-school their children to get voucher money, minus administrative fees of up to 50 percent of the voucher. (Palm Beach Post, 10 August 2003).
At the S. L. Jones Christian Academy in Pensacola, Florida—rated “exceptional” by the Florida Department of Education—former employees have tried to draw attention to problems that include charging the state for services that were never provided and falsifying applications. The school also allegedly reprimanded employees for reporting a possible case of child abuse and paid parents cash to silence their complaints. (St. Petersburg Times, 24 March 24 2002.)
In Milwaukee, Alex’s Academics of Excellence plans to open for the 2003–04 school year even though it has been evicted for nonpayment of rent and owes the state of Wisconsin more than $111,000 and despite the fact that its CEO is a convicted rapist. (Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, 12 June 2003)
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