Cleveland Vouchers Begin to Pay Dividends

Published November 1, 1999

News about Cleveland’s voucher program came in rapid-fire succession around the opening of the 1999-2000 school year. But perhaps the most significant development came last . . . and received the least coverage from the mainstream media.

That news was the release of an Indiana University team’s evaluation showing that after just three years, the experimental program is beginning to meet many of its objectives, including improved academic achievement for low-income, inner-city children now able to attend private schools. Those private schools provide alternatives to Cleveland’s 73,000-student public school system, which failed all 18 state proficiency tests.

On September 2, the state-commissioned study by Dr. Kim K. Metcalf and his associates at the Indiana Center for Evaluation went to the Ohio legislature on schedule. Unfortunately, so many anxious and angry words had boiled out of Cleveland during the previous 10 days that the study was given scant attention.

On August 24–just 18 hours before the opening of the school year–U.S. District Judge Solomon Oliver Jr. had ordered a suspension of the Cleveland voucher program, saying he suspected the program was unconstitutional because the majority of private schools are religious. Three days later, responding to anguished outcries from families of the 3,900 voucher students, Oliver modified his order, saying that no new students could enter the program, but those already enrolled could remain at least until January.

The original Oliver order brought same-day claims of victory from the presidents of the national teacher unions. Sandra Feldman of the American Federation of Teachers pronounced the Cleveland vouchers “bad law, bad policy, and bad education.” Bob Chase of the National Education Association said the vouchers flunked “the ultimate test” of any school reform: raising achievement.

Both the AFT and NEA basically were repeating the comments they had made when the first, very early Metcalf study concluded in 1997 that voucher pupils had made no significant achievement gains. But Metcalf’s new report, covering the period 1996 to 1999, tells a considerably different story based on longer-term evidence. The Metcalf team concluded:

  • Voucher students show “small but statistically significant gains” in two of five academic areas (language and science).
  • The program “effectively serves” the low-income families for which it was developed, while maintaining the same racial mix as the Cleveland public schools.
  • Voucher parents were “much more satisfied” with their schools than were other parents. They said school safety and improved quality of education were most important to them.

Metcalf cautioned that much remains to be learned about the long-term effects of the program. He told School Reform News that he’s used to being caught in a whipsaw of criticism. After the earlier reports, “proponents felt we had been biased against vouchers [while] opponents felt we had failed to make a sufficiently strong statement against them.”

Metcalf noted that he hasn’t seen anything from the teacher unions or other groups after release of his latest report. “I’d like to think the quality of our work and our genuine neutrality on the issue have minimized some of this over time,” he said.

Six weeks after their attacks on Cleveland’s vouchers based on outdated evidence, neither the NEA nor the AFT had issued statements altering their stances. Evidently, though, their strategy was shifting, from claims that vouchers are ineffective to claims that reduced public-school class size is more effective than vouchers in raising achievement.

The NEA’s Chase circulated an op-ed piece touting results of the STAR project in Tennessee as proof of the long-term efficacy of cuts in class sizes. But University of Rochester economist Eric Hanushek, who has done the most extensive research on the subject, says STAR’s positive results are limited to very substantial–and costly–class size reductions in kindergarten. According to Hanushek, there is no research support at all for class size reductions in later grades or for class size reductions that leave classrooms with more than 13 to 17 pupils.

Robert Holland is a senior fellow at the Lexington Institute, a public policy think tank in Arlington, Virginia. He can be reached by e-mail at [email protected].

For more information …

The September 2, 1999, report by Dr. Kim K. Metcalf, Evaluation of the Cleveland Scholarship and Tutoring Grant Program, 1996-1999, is available from the Indiana Center for Evaluation, Smith Research Center #102, Indiana University, 2805 East Tenth Street, Bloomington, IN 47408-2601, phone 812/855-4438.