Voucher Proposals Flourish Nationwide

Published October 1, 2001

Although school vouchers were pronounced dead and buried by gleeful opponents after two initiative defeats last November–and also squeezed out of President George W. Bush’s education initiative–the idea continues to surface in school choice proposals from Vermont to New Mexico.

Popular in Polls

Why do vouchers refuse to die? Public opinion polls provide the answer: Americans like the idea of vouchers. They may not vote for specific voucher questions on the ballot, but they are quite open to the general idea of parents directing their tax dollars to the school of their choice.

In his new book, Schools, Vouchers, and the American Public, Stanford University political science professor Terry M. Moe finds 60 percent of the public in favor of vouchers and only 32 percent against.

A July survey of Hispanic-American adults by McLaughlin & Associates showed even stronger support among Latinos, with 73 percent supporting the idea of “taxpayer funded vouchers to help low-income families send their children to a better public, private, or church run school.”

A new book released in June by the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies reports 60 percent of black Americans favor vouchers, with support rising to 76 percent among blacks aged 26 to 35.

Why, then, do only 25 percent of black elected officials support vouchers?

According to the Joint Center book, the elected officials are simply responding to the views of the voting black public. David A. Bositis, a senior political analyst at the Center, points out that blacks older than 50 are the ones who tend to vote, and they oppose vouchers by 48 percent to 44 percent.

Black Alliance Targets St. Louis

An organization consisting largely of young African-Americans, the Black Alliance for Educational Options, will start a television advertising campaign in St. Louis in the fall with the aim of forming a St. Louis chapter. The ads promote vouchers as a way for low-income parents to get their children out of failing public schools.

“What we find is that citizens in St. Louis are very hungry for [choice]–be it charter schools or vouchers,” Donayle Whitmore told the St. Louis Post-Dispatch’s Matthew Frank. Whitmore, who was turned down in her attempt to create a charter school in the city, heads the effort to establish the BAEO St. Louis chapter.

More than 1,200 St. Louis children already participate in two privately funded voucher programs, the St. Louis School Choice Scholarship Foundation and the St. Louis Gateway Educational Trust. Another 1,400 or so children attend four charter schools that opened last year.

As many as 3,000 children could sign up to attend four new privately run, tuition-free academies opening this fall as St. Louis Academies, thanks to the efforts of Bishop Lawrence Wooten of the Church of God in Christ and former Marine Tim Daniels. Eventually, they anticipate converting the academies to charter schools, but sponsors currently are refusing to review new charter applications.

Florida Sees Surge in Special Ed Vouchers

In just three years, Florida’s McKay Scholarship Program for Students with Disabilities has grown from a small pilot effort involving just two children to a statewide voucher program that will likely have more than 4,000 participants this fall, up from 963 last year.

The program permits parents of special education students to transfer their child–and the education dollars allocated to that child–to another public school or to a private school. With 350,000 students eligible for the scholarships, the McKay program could soon become the nation’s largest voucher initiative.

A voucher in the McKay program is worth up to the amount of a school’s tuition, from about $5,000 to $17,000. Parents must pay the difference if the private school tuition is higher than the value of the voucher.

Ironically, transfers to other public schools may be more restricted under the program than transfers to private schools, as 66 disabled students in Pinellas County recently discovered. They had wanted to transfer to other public schools this fall but cannot do so until the 2003-2004 school year because of the district’s desegregation plan, which requires students to be assigned to schools based on geographic attendance zones.

The desegregation plan applies only to public schools and so the nearly 500 disabled students who applied to private schools are unaffected.

Voucher Push Continues in New Mexico

Democrats control the legislature in New Mexico and have rejected every attempt by Republican Governor Gary Johnson to introduce publicly funded vouchers into the Land of Enchantment’s public education system. Nevertheless, Johnson plans to keep pushing for school choice until he leaves office at the end of 2002.

“You’re not going to see a letup in my efforts to try and push the Legislature to fund vouchers,” he said in July. Johnson addressed a news conference to announce a $25,000 donation from the R.D. and Joan Dale Hubbard Foundation to Educate New Mexico, a nonprofit organization that provides privately funded vouchers to New Mexico children.

Vouchers an Issue in New Jersey Race

School vouchers are a key issue in the race for governor in New Jersey, with Republican candidate Bret Schundler embracing them and Democrat candidate Jim McGreevey opposing them.

Schundler has been promoting vouchers for a decade in Jersey City, a staunchly Democratic city where he currently is serving his third term as mayor. He also has helped open a charter school and more recently has proposed funding vouchers for low-income students from donations to scholarship-granting organizations.

“I do believe in vouchers and I don’t want anyone to think I don’t,” he recently told Star-Ledger reporter John Mooney.

Preschoolers Get Vouchers in New Orleans

On August 16, the office of Louisiana Governor Mike Foster announced the Pelican State’s first school voucher program would start this fall, allowing 600 New Orleans four-year-olds from low-income families to attend private preschools using public funds.

The vouchers, which will be distributed by lottery to eligible families who apply, are worth $4,700 per student. The funds will be distributed to schools–secular private or religious private–selected by parents. As many as 1,400 children may be eligible for the vouchers.

The $3 million program, funded with federal welfare money as a one-year pilot, was approved in June as an amendment to a larger package of social services programs. At the time, the provision drew little opposition.

But within a month of passage, the state branch of the American Civil Liberties Union filed suit against Foster, alleging he withheld public documents related to the program. The ACLU also is considering filing a suit regarding the constitutionality of the new law. A preschool program at the public schools is being developed but will not begin until January.

Any private preschool approved by the state board of education is eligible to receive the vouchers. There are 46 such schools in New Orleans. Republican Senate President John Hainkel, who introduced the voucher amendment in the legislature, told the Baton Rouge Advocate he did not care whether the four-year olds attend Catholic, Lutheran, or secular schools with no religious affiliation.

Kirby Ducote, a lobbyist for the Louisiana Catholic Conference, said he had been urging the creation of a school choice program since 1967. The Times Picayune asked him if he thought the new vouchers would lead to more voucher-like programs.

“I hope so,” said Ducote. “I hope we are opening a door.”

Cleveland Voucher Appeal

The Cleveland school choice case has been scheduled for the U.S. Supreme Court’s conference on September 24, 2001. According to the Institute for Justice, the Court could announce its decision on whether it will take the case on October 1. If the Court does grant review on that date, briefings would likely take place during the period from November 2001 to January 2002, with oral arguments in late January or early February 2002.

Milwaukee Program Funded for Next Year

In final budget negotiations at the end of July, Democrats in Wisconsin’s State Senate dropped their call for slicing the Milwaukee voucher amount in half, but Republicans had to shelve their plan for expanding the program to other cities.

Legislators agreed to continue the school choice program but to fund it as a separate item from the public schools, thus eliminating some minor fluctuations in funding for several districts outside Milwaukee.

Dayton Vouchers Win Plaudits from Parents

The Harvard Program on Education Policy and Governance in August released an evaluation of the two-year-old privately funded voucher program in Dayton, Ohio, called Parents Advancing Choice in Education (PACE).

Since students who received the vouchers were chosen randomly by lottery, researchers could readily compare the “voucher effect” by comparing families who applied for a voucher and received one versus those who applied but didn’t get one.

About 40 percent of parents who won the voucher lottery gave their child’s private school an “A,” compared to only 16 percent of parents whose children did not get a voucher and remained in public schools.

Compared to similar students who remained in public schools, African-American voucher students scored 8 percentile points higher on the Iowa Test of Basic Skills in reading and 7 points higher on a combined reading and math score.

For more information . . .

The report on the Dayton, Ohio PACE program is available from the Web site of the Harvard Program on Education Policy and Governance at www.ksg.harvard.edu/pepg/papers.htm.

Other Countries Trying Vouchers

According to a July 10 Kyodo News report, the Japanese Cabinet Office has found in a study that giving vouchers directly to individuals for the purchase of social services would be more effective than subsidizing service providers. The study said giving more choice to consumers with vouchers would stimulate competition and the entry of new service providers.

A school choice program in Colombia used a lottery system to allocate over 125,000 vouchers to students from poor neighborhoods, with the voucher covering about half the cost of tuition at a private secondary school.

Comparing outcomes for lottery winners vs. losers, the study found the winners scored 0.2 standard deviations higher on standardized tests; were 15 percent more likely to have attended private school; had completed 0.1 more years of schooling; and were more likely to have finished eighth grade.

For more information . . .

An abstract of the NBER working paper, Vouchers for Private Schooling in Colombia: Evidence from a Randomized Natural Experiment, is available online at http://papers.nber.org/papers/W8343.The full text can be purchased for $5.