K-12 Voucher – No! College Voucher – Yes!

Published February 1, 1998

Although Members of Congress have consistently rejected legislation that would provide vouchers, scholarships, tax-free savings incentives, or direct aid for low-income children to attend better K-12 schools, more than 115 sponsors have already been found for a House proposal to inform low-income 6th-graders that they qualify for a $3,000 voucher to support their education. There’s just one catch: the students can’t get the voucher until after they complete their K-12 education, because the “voucher” in question is a $3,000 Pell Grant for college.

The bill’s sponsor, Representative Chaka Fattah (D-Pennsylvania), says his “21st Century Scholars Program” will help students “put within their sights the potential of a far greater future.”

Congress’ contradictory views on vouchers are paralleled by those of the National Education Association on education savings accounts. The NEA supports college savings incentives, yet strongly opposes K-12 savings incentives such as Senator Paul Coverdell’s (R-George) “A+ Education Savings Accounts.”

Aspen Group Endorses Vouchers

School vouchers for low-income students in the nation’s worst urban areas won qualified support from a majority of members of the Aspen Institute’s Domestic Strategy Group, comprised of individuals from all points on the political spectrum. Vouchers were proposed as a way to accomplish many of the school reform experiments the Group agrees are needed to stimulate change in public education.

The voucher proposal was made by William Galston, a former Clinton White House domestic policy aide now a professor at the School of Public Affairs at the University of Maryland at College Park. Many of the vouchers would be spent in urban Catholic schools, which Galston argued are producing results even for the worst-off urban students.

“These schools work,” Galston said, “even when all other social variables are held constant.”

Despite objections to charter schools, vouchers, and outsourcing, most members of the Group believe it is important to foster experimentation aggressively, according to Beyond Bureaucracy, an account of the Institute’s August 1996 meeting in Aspen, Colorado. Because the crisis in public education “is so serious and the inertia so crippling,” the Group wanted to lend its moral support to some specific form of experimentation.

“Mediocrity versus catastrophe–that’s the choice today,” commented The Washington Post‘s E.J. Dionne. “So let’s bite the bullet and support experimentation, while also recognizing this as part of a much bigger problem.”

Liberals Back Vouchers

Support for vouchers is spreading, notes U.S. News & World Report. The Urban Institute and the Annie C. Casey Foundation, “hardly bastions of conservatism,” according to reporter Thomas Toch, now support voucher experiments for low-income families.

“Kids in urban areas are failing educationally,” the Urban Institute’s Jane Hannaway told Toch last June. “It’s hard to justify not trying every possible remedy.”

World Bank Endorses Choice

A new study from the World Bank brings a fresh perspective to the debate over school choice, framing the issue in terms of supply-side versus demand-side financing. While the authors of the study acknowledge that the supply-side expansion of schooling has been remarkably successful in the drive to offer basic education, they point out that there is an unfinished agenda in terms of access, equity, and efficiency that could better be addressed through demand-side financing, including the use of vouchers.

“Demand-side financing is a pragmatic choice for introducing needed reforms according to local needs and available resources,” says David de Ferranti, director of the World Bank’s Human Development Network. Demand-side financing, he adds, “refers to the channeling of public funds directly to individuals, institutions, and communities on the basis of expressed demand.” In other words, the money follows the student.

In Decentralization of Education: Demand-Side Financing, economist Harry Anthony Patrinos and education consultant David Lakshmanan Ariasingam document the role of the World Bank in direct financing of education in various client countries through the use of school choice, vouchers, and other demand-side mechanisms. The study is part of a continuing effort by the World Bank to reform education systems in developing countries.

Those efforts, according to The World Bank Participation Sourcebook, should include education vouchers for families.

When governments build the schools and pay the teachers, the benefits do not flow equally to all members of society, argue Patrinos and Ariasingam, giving examples of ill-served groups in various countries: girls, indigenous peoples, disadvantaged minorities, and the poor. Poor parents, for example, may choose to keep their children at home rather than send them to a low-quality public school.

“But public school teachers usually continue to be paid,” note the authors, “even when they do not show up for class.”