Vouchers Would Give Power to DC Parents

Published September 11, 2003

The recent 209-208 vote by the U.S. House of Representatives in favor of a small voucher program in Washington, DC represents a recognition on the part of Congress that public schools in the nation’s capital need a reform model based on competition to focus the system’s attention on properly educating the approximately 68,000 children it currently serves. The promises of past reforms have proven hollow as children continue to perform at one of the lowest levels–and highest costs per student–of any school district in the nation.

When the first issue of School Reform News was published in January 1997, the front-page story was about the appointment of retired Army Lt. General Julius W. Becton, Jr. as CEO and superintendent of the District of Columbia school system, replacing Franklin L. Smith amid reports of fiscal mismanagement, lagging test scores, increasing violence, and a rising dropout rate. Becton’s promise–and Becton himself–were soon gone and the District’s failure to educate the vast majority of its students remains unchanged to this day.

In 1992, just 10 percent of the district’s 4th-graders could read at a proficient level or above in tests conducted by the National Assessment of Education Progress (NAEP). After 10 turbulent years of reform, that percentage of proficient 4th-grade readers in 2002 was still just 10 percent. It was 10 percent for 8th-graders, too. Math achievement levels have improved over the past decade but still remain far below the reading level. In 2000, only 6 percent of the District’s 4th- and 8th-graders could perform math at a proficient level or above.

Parents Want Vouchers

Teacher union leaders and public school officials across the country are lobbying their Members of Congress to vote against the proposed DC voucher plan. The plan would enable at least 1,300 public school students to transfer to private schools, using a $7,500 voucher. With parents controlling the education funds, private schools would have to meet the most demanding accountability standard of all–satisfying a customer who may take his or her money elsewhere if unhappy with the service provided. Surveys of parents in privately funded voucher programs show that a large majority of parents are much more satisfied with their child’s private school than with the public school the child used to attend.

In the general population, almost 90 percent of the nation’s school-age children currently attend public schools. However, only about one in three Americans (35 percent) would send their children to public schools if offered a voucher that would cover the full cost of tuition at a religious or secular private school, according to a new Phi Delta Kappa/Gallup poll. Even if the voucher covered only half the cost of tuition, a majority of Americans still would choose a private school (51 percent) over a public school (47 percent) for their children.

Among parents with children in public schools, 59 percent would choose a private school if given a full-tuition voucher, with only 39 percent choosing a public school.

Although the Democratic Party is firmly opposed to school vouchers, the PDK/Gallup Poll shows less than half of Democrats polled (45 percent) would select a public school if given a full-tuition voucher, compared to 28 percent of Republicans.

Another recent survey by The Heritage Foundation shows private schools already are a popular choice among lawmakers, with 41 percent of U.S. House Members and 46 percent of U.S. Senators placing their children in private schools. Heritage Foundation education policy analyst Krista Kafer points out that three other recent DC voucher proposals that Congress rejected would have passed if lawmakers had voted in a way consistent with their own choice of private schools.

Vouchers Result in Valuable Competition

A number of academic studies have concluded that the competition for students produced by vouchers has a positive effect on student achievement in affected public schools. When vouchers are part of the competitive environment, public schools with relatively low student achievement–and thus most at risk for losing students to better-performing schools–take steps to improve student achievement so as to avoid further loss of students. Studies show public schools in Florida and Milwaukee improved their performance following the introduction of vouchers.

Other studies show that states with more educational freedom of choice–i.e., more choices available to parents for the education of their children–have higher overall student achievement than states with less freedom, or fewer options. This same pattern of more education freedom-higher educational achievement also appears among Canadian Provinces.

The introduction of significant voucher competition into the Washington, DC school system is likely to result in an improvement in student achievement in the District’s worst-performing public schools. Although the proposed program provides opportunities for at least 1,300 students to leave the District’s public schools for better private schools, the low number of students involved–representing less than 2 percent of the District’s public school students–means the effect of competition is likely to be minimal. Unless the public school system faces real competition, it’s unlikely to see the need to respond.

George A. Clowes is managing editor of School Reform News, a publication of The Heartland Institute. His email address is [email protected].

For further information, contact Heartland Public Affairs Director Greg Lackner, 312/377-4000, 773/489-6447, email [email protected]