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Schools ought to be more accountable for students’ educational achievement. To that end, President Bush’s education plan proposes to make accountability enforceable: If a school fails to make progress in educating disadvantaged students for three years, parents of these students could use federal Title I funds to move their children to an alternative public or private school.
Since emotions run high on whether funding should be portable, it may be useful to look at some evidence. Vouchers provide such portability. Vouchers and private scholarships are currently offered to low-income students in a number of cities and usually accomplish the objective of improving educational opportunities for those students most at risk.
After four years in a state-funded voucher program in Milwaukee, low-income students performed 11 percentile points better in math and 6 points better in reading than similar students who did not receive vouchers. If the program produced such gains for all students, then over 12 years of schooling, it would eliminate more than half of the gap in reading performance and all of the gap in math performance between white and minority students.1
Cleveland, Ohio has had a state-funded voucher program since 1996. At two new schools created to serve voucher students, test scores were 7 percentile points higher in reading and 15 percentile points higher in math on the California Achievement Test after two years.2 In contrast, percentile scores of inner-city public school students often fall by a point or two a year.3
Results further indicate that voucher programs improve education in the existing public schools as well. Last year, Florida implemented a program that provided vouchers to students in schools that had received a failing grade from the state twice in four years. The results show that schools that had received one failing grade and whose students would have been offered vouchers had the school failed again, achieved test scores gains more than twice as large as other schools.4
Not all school choice programs are government-funded. Organizations affiliated with the Children’s Scholarship Fund offer privately funded scholarships to students in 35 cities nationwide, and 1.25 million children have applied for 40,000 scholarships annually.5 Because the number of parents applying for scholarships far outstrips the available funds, scholarships are usually awarded by lottery, permitting an ideal “controlled experiment” to test the effects of school choice on student achievement. In August 2000, Harvard University’s Program on Education Policy and Governance released an evaluation of these programs in New York City, Dayton, Ohio, and Washington, D.C. After two years, African-American students using the scholarships to switch from public to private schools scored between 4 and 10 percentile points higher in math and between 4.5 and 8 percentile points higher in reading than similar students who did not receive scholarships. This improvement was sufficient to eliminate one-third of the test score gap between blacks and whites.
The results are in. School choice works. But will vouchers as proposed by President Bush at the federal level work?
A common criticism is that $1,500 per student, the most frequently mentioned figure, is not nearly enough money to let a poor student attend a private school. Opponents making this argument usually proceed to cite tuition figures at private high schools that exceed $15,000 annually.6 What they don’t tell us is that such high tuitions are not typical. Average private school tuition in the U.S. is approximately $3,100 – a much more modest figure that suggests low-cost private schools are widely available.
Examples from a few states support this inference. A survey by Alabama Citizens for a Sound Economy revealed that the average private school tuition in that state is approximately $2,500. In San Antonio, the average tuition at private schools chosen by parents of low-income students who received privately funded scholarships was only $1,982.7 In Washington, D.C., the Washington Scholarship Fund provides no more than 60 percent of tuition, up to $1,700 per year, yet one-in-ten private school students in D.C. are supported by the Washington Scholarship Fund.
Fundamentally, school choice critics confuse the means with the end. The goal should be a quality education for all American children – not the perpetuation of any particular method of providing education. To achieve that goal, government should enable parents to purchase education from the most effective providers, public or private. As Education Secretary Rodney Paige noted recently, “We’ll use the taxpayers’ money to make sure the child learns. … We want to be concerned about the results, not about the structures.” The president’s plan to make federal tax dollars at the worst performing schools portable for students is a welcome step in that direction.
1 Jay P. Greene et al., “Effectiveness of School Choice: The Milwaukee Experiment,” Harvard Program in Education Policy and Governance (March 1997). All of the Harvard studies cited here are available at http://data.fas.harvard.edu/pepg/.
2 Paul E. Peterson et al., “New Findings from the Cleveland Scholarship Program,” Harvard University PEPG (May 6, 1998), pp. 7, 9-10.
3 Jay P. Greene et al., “Lessons from the Cleveland Scholarship Program,” Harvard University PEPG (Oct.15, 1997), pp. 23-25.
4 Jay P. Greene, “An Evaluation of the Florida A-Plus Accountability and School Choice Program,” Harvard Program in Education Policy and Governance (February 2001).
5 Baltimore and nationwide statistics are from private communications with Towson State University professor Howard Baetjer, a board member of the Baltimore organization administering the scholarships.
6 For example, S. David Brazer, “Bush’s School Choice Proposal is Small Change,” Washington Post (Feb. 4, 2001), p. B-1.
7 Paul E. Peterson et al., “An Evaluation of the Horizon Scholarship Program in the Edgewood Independent School District, San Antonio, Texas: The First Year,” Harvard University PEPG (Sept. 1999).