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Vouchers Are Not a Smart Choice

The recent U.S. Supreme Court decision concerning the Cleveland, Ohio, school voucher program is about to open a floodgate of voucher initiatives across the country. Several states have watched this case closely, ready to move forward with voucher legislation if the court ruled favorably.

It is important to note what this decision means and what it does not mean. The high court has ruled that the voucher program in the Cleveland school system does not violate the church-state separation clause of the Constitution. That’s it. That is all the decision means. 
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The court did not decide that vouchers are effective in providing education for children. The court did not decide that private schools were better than public schools. The court did not decide that public schools were inadequate.
 
It’s important to make this distinction because the high court’s decision is the result of a long debate on the merits of public versus private education. The debate has been driven by the perception that public education in America is broken beyond repair. That there are problems with public education is not disputed. What is disputed, however, is the best way to fix those problems.
 
Proponents of private school vouchers believe “parental choice” is the key to education reform. These advocates argue that if parents were able to choose their children’s school, and were able to take their tax dollars with them in the form of vouchers, schools would be forced to improve or face the loss of children and dollars to private schools.
 
Several myths and considerable misinformation have fueled the school choice movement. Before we consent to dismantling our public education system, we need to see these mythical claims for what they really are.
 
Myth #1—Public education as a whole is a dismal failure. 
 
This assertion is simply not true. Some schools certainly struggle, but others excel. Doesn’t it make more sense to figure out what is working at the successful schools and find ways to import that into failing schools? How will draining dollars from troubled schools contribute to their success? It won’t. It will just make their situation worse.
 
Myth #2—Private schools are more effective and efficient than public schools. 
 
This is also not true. Several ongoing studies have been tracking progress in the two oldest voucher experiments in Milwaukee and Cleveland. These studies have found that the costs of comparable services at public and private schools are about the same. So much for greater efficiency.
 
These studies have also shown that public and private school students are performing at about the same rate. Private school students have demonstrated slightly better reading proficiency than public school students. But researchers believe this has more to do with parental involvement than in any appreciable difference between the two systems. So much for greater effectiveness.
 
Myth #3—Private schools are safer.
 
All parents are concerned about school safety and security. The tragic events at Columbine High School, as well as other schools around the country, have created the impression that public schools are not safe. The myth exists that private schools, with their greater flexibility and control, are able to foster more secure learning environments.
 
Unfortunately this is not necessarily true. The Edgewood School district in San Antonio, Texas, has been the site of one of the most extensive voucher experiments ever undertaken. Beginning in 1998 with a $50 million grant from Children’s Educational Opportunity Foundation, every child in the school district was offered a voucher to attend private school.
 
After two years the program was evaluated by an independent research group. Several factors were studied, including school security. The study found no appreciable difference between private and public school safety. In other words, where two or more people are gathered, there will be problems.
 
Myth #4—Vouchers are the best way to rescue poor children from failing inner-city schools. 
 
Advocates tell us that poor kids need private schools. Private schools are safe, and are free from violence and drugs. Since class size is smaller, poor children receive more individual attention. Since instruction is not influenced by teacher unions, incompetent teachers are quickly weeded out.
 
Sounds good in theory, but in actual practice it does not work. Researchers have found that those who are already the most advantaged are the ones most likely to exercise social choices. Families with limited resources will be less likely to exercise a school choice option. In other words, the use of vouchers will eventually create a two-tiered system of education—one for the elite, and one for the poor.
 
Finally, we are also told that driving schools into the free market—forcing them to compete for students and dollars—will make for better schools. Administrators and teachers who are forced to deal with the “bottom line” will cut through the fat and get to the meat of education.
 
This is an absolutely untested assertion. There is no reason whatsoever to believe that handing schools over to corporate America is going to make them better. There is no evidence that educational goals follow profitability. 
 
In fact, given what we have learned recently about Enron and WorldCom, the last thing we may want to do is give our schools over to managers who care so much about profit that they are willing to sacrifice everything else to get it.
 
We need to be very deliberate here, for there is much at stake. We cannot allow the harping of those who may not really care about public education in the first place to play on our fears and pressure us into doing something foolish. The high court’s ruling has served to make school choice legal. That does not mean it is the right choice, or a smart choice.
 
James Evans is pastor of Crosscreek Baptist Church in Pelham, Ala.