Responding to the Critics of Vouchers: What about the Kids?

Published November 1, 1997

School Reform News contributing editor David Kirkpatrick is uniquely qualified to speak as an advocate of school choice. A former history teacher in the Pennsylvania public schools, he was also active in the state’s teachers’ union, serving as president of the 88,000-member Pennsylvania State Education Association from 1969-71. It was as union president that Kirkpatrick took a public stand for school vouchers at the 1970 National Education Association convention in San Francisco.

Kirkpatrick has contributed significantly to the school reform movement in a variety of roles, including executive director of Pennsylvania’s REACH school choice alliance. The author of two books on school choice and a prolific writer on the subject, Kirkpatrick was in Cleveland researching a third book when he spoke to School Reform News managing editor George Clowes. Playing devil’s advocate, Clowes asked Kirkpatrick to respond to a wide range of charges leveled against educational choice by its critics.

Clowes: Aren’t voucher proponents simply pushing choice for their own political gain, rather than to improve the quality of education?

Kirkpatrick: That’s just name-calling–like referring to voucher proponents as conservatives or “radical rights.” I’m a public school educator, I’m not Catholic, and I’m not connected with a non-public school. Mike Lieberman is another. And John Taylor Gatto, who taught in New York City for almost thirty years. Tracey Leon Bailey was the National School Teacher of the Year in 1993. I could go on. All of us have spent our careers in the public school system.

Clowes: Won’t education savings accounts, like those proposed by Senator Coverdell, damage public schools by shifting tax dollars to private schools?

Kirkpatrick: Opponents of vouchers always talk about schools and systems, not about kids. What about the kids? They should come first. Ten years ago, the chief assistant to Al Shanker said that the schools exist to serve the public interest, to serve all of us. But if you don’t educate the kids and qualify them to succeed, how are you serving a public purpose?

Clowes: There are 46 million students in public school in the U.S., and only about 6 million in private schools. Realistically, how many public school students could be served by private schools?

Kirkpatrick: The question assumes that there would be no change. If you would give the kids just a $4,000 or $5,000 scholarship–or probably even less–new schools will pop up. Two of the schools in Cleveland are brand new, non-sectarian, independent schools and they started because of the voucher program.

Clowes: But the voucher is not a guarantee of admission–only the freedom to apply to a private school.

Kirkpatrick: The schools can’t choose from kids that don’t apply. As a matter of fact, the non-public schools usually accept any kid who applies if space is available. They reject very few. And once they accept them, their holding pattern is such that about 98 percent of kids that go to non-public schools graduate. Public schools graduate only about 70 percent.

Clowes: What about accountability–how will private, voucher-accepting schools be evaluated?

Kirkpatrick: The public schools are not accountable now, except for the money. They do trace the money trail, but nobody is held accountable if kids fail. The key accountability is the one that the non-public schools and colleges face all the time: the kid can leave and take the money with him. If you’ve got a school of 150 to 200 kids, which is about the average for a non-public school, and 20 leave, then 10 percent of your budget has gone. That’s the only accountability that will work.

Clowes: Will tax dollars go to support extremists and separatists, and racist views?

Kirkpatrick: There are 25,000 non-public schools in the country right now. Where are the schools run by David Koresh, David Duke, the witches, the Skinheads? They could open a school right now. But there aren’t any schools like that. First, because most people don’t want to send their child to a school like that. Second, how are they going to get accredited?

The 1925 U.S. Supreme Court Pierce decision says that the government has a right to reasonably regulate non-public schools, including prohibiting anything that is contrary to the public interest. So, the government could prohibit such a school by saying that these vouchers or grants would only be acceptable at an accredited or an approved school. The GI Bill is like that. Nobody’s going to give you money to do just anything.

Clowes: Then won’t a voucher system require another layer of bureaucracy to administer, check eligibility, etc.?

Kirkpatrick: Let’s look at the GI Bill. I don’t know how many millions of veterans have used it, but it’s operated by a bureau within the Veterans’ Administration. All they do is verify that you’re a veteran, that you’re going to a recognized school, and that you are, in fact, in attendance at that school. That’s all. And it would be the same thing here, with vouchers.

Government does tend to regulate an institution if it gives money directly to it. That’s why the public schools are so regulated. What they don’t regulate or regulate very lightly is money that goes through individuals. For example, there is very minimal regulation in the food stamp program.

Clowes: Wouldn’t vouchers bring state control over private schools?

Kirkpatrick: There’s no evidence that regulation follows the money as long as the money goes to the individual, not to an institution. Government programs that are funded through individuals have minimum regulation but instead rely on qualification. For example, I get Social Security, and the government doesn’t tell me what to do with it. You can take the Social Security check and use it to pay tuition for your grandchildren to go to a religious school, even though it’s government money. As you know, President Clinton sent his daughter Chelsea to the Sidwell School. He did that with the public money paid to him as President.

Clowes: Will the voucher amounts be enough to cover the cost of tuition at private schools?

Kirkpatrick: Look at the private scholarship programs, like the CEO America programs, which provide half-tuition scholarships up to $1,500. CEO America is the largest voucher program in the country. Every one of its affiliates is successful, every one is over-subscribed. The only difference between a private voucher program and a public voucher program is where the money comes from.

Clowes: But some private schools cost $10,000 a year . . .

Kirkpatrick: Most spend nothing like that. The average private school, if you take all 25,000 of them together, costs less than $4,000 per pupil. So, a $1,000 to $3,000 scholarship is enough. The vouchers in Cleveland are only $2,250. The vouchers in Milwaukee are up to $3,000. The schools can operate with that.

The most expensive schools in this country are the elite suburban public schools. For example, in Westchester County, New York, there are publicly funded schools that cost $25,000 per pupil per year. I don’t think there’s a non-public school in the country that spends $25,000 per student.

Clowes: Even so, how can poor parents afford to send their children to private schools?”

Kirkpatrick: Many of them are doing it already. HOPE Central Academy here in Cleveland is an excellent example. The average annual family income of the 270 students in that school is between $6,500 and $7,000. I’ve been told it’s the poorest school in the United States.

Their argument is if we can’t help everybody, we shouldn’t help anybody. It’s a good thing that wasn’t the philosophy on the Titanic. If their complaint really is about the cost of tuition, why don’t they join the rest of us and increase the voucher? They say, “This isn’t enough money.” But the reason it isn’t enough money is because they fight to make the program as weak as possible, with as little money and as many regulations and hamstrings as possible. And then, they say that the program won’t work.

Clowes: How do you respond to Education Secretary Richard Riley’s recent comment that vouchers divide communities?

Kirkpatrick: Where are they dividing communities? The charter schools aren’t, and they’re spreading like crazy. We’ve already got 25,000 non-public schools in the country, and I don’t hear them of dividing the community. I know of no evidence that graduates of non-public schools or religious schools are any poorer citizens or any more intolerant or bigoted than the graduates of public schools.

Clowes: Doesn’t the division come from segregation and polarization along racial or religious lines?

Kirkpatrick: That’s what we have in the public school system now. The only place kids are not segregated in public schools is in small communities where you have only one school. African-American students are more segregated today in the public school system than they were when Brown vs. Board of Education was handed down more than 40 years ago. That’s not a criticism of public schools, that’s the way people live.

Clowes: Haven’t voucher proposals been rejected by the voters?

Kirkpatrick: Yes, in three major cases: Oregon, California, and Colorado. Each had an initiative and each lost about two-to-one after initial polls favored them about two-to-one. When you get into an initiative campaign, it’s about politics, not about education. Initiatives are “Yes” and “No” votes, and if you see anything you don’t like in the wording, you’ll vote “No.” The classic example is Proposition 13 in 1978, which put a cap on the property tax. Although it was tremendously popular, Howard Jarvis didn’t get it passed until his fourth try.

Clowes: Are vouchers unconstitutional?

Kirkpatrick: No. In its entire history, the U.S. Supreme Court has never ruled that a general voucher program is unconstitutional.

Back in 1946, Congress passed a law affecting government pages–theirs and the Supreme Court’s. These kids are mostly in their teens, still trying to get their educations, and they have to keep irregular hours. Congress pays them to get their educations wherever they can. They can go to public school in Washington, they can go to private schools, they can hire a tutor, they can go to a religious school. Would the U.S. Supreme Court allow its own pages to choose their own education if there were a constitutional problem with it?

Schopenhauer has said that “All great ideas go through three stages: In the first stage, they are ridiculed. In the second stage, they are strongly opposed. And in the third stage, they are considered to be self-evident.” And that’s what is going to happen with school choice. We’re in the second stage now, and moving to the third stage.