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Eternal Vouchers

Just when it seemed as if vouchers were moribund, the school board in Douglas County, located south of Denver, announced it is considering allowing parents to use public funds to send their children to private schools. What makes the story unusual is that the county is one of the wealthiest in the nation, with median family income of $105,000 and only eight percent of students qualifying for free lunches. Never before have vouchers been attempted in an affluent suburban district with high-performing public schools, according to the Wall Street Journal ("Board Floats Voucher Plan," Nov. 20).

To make matters more interesting, all private schools in Douglas County beyond first grade - with one exception - are Christian-based. If parents decide to use the vouchers in similar schools, it would result in public funds supporting religious schools. However, the Supreme Court in Zelman v. Simmons-Harris in 2002 ruled by 5-4 that as long as individuals directly received the vouchers rather than institutions, the plan was constitutional. (It also listed four other conditions.) The high court said that if all criteria were satisfied vouchers enabled parents to "exercise genuine choice among options public and private, secular and religious."

The last time vouchers were in the headlines was in Nov. 2007 when voters in Utah overwhelmingly defeated the country's first universal voucher program. In Sept. 2010, vouchers again appeared less prominently in the news when the Democratic gubernatorial candidate in Pennsylvania came out in favor of "education grants" for disadvantaged students. Nevertheless, it's important to bear in mind that millions of voters in more than 25 statewide referendums across the country between 1967 and 2004 rejected vouchers or their analogues by an average margin of 2-to-1.

One possible explanation for the thumbs-down vote over the years is that vouchers have not produced the academic results their supporters had hoped. In the first full-scale longitudinal study of the country's oldest voucher program that began in 1990 in Milwaukee, low-income students who attended private schools still were scoring about the same as their peers in public schools ("New data shows similar academic results between voucher and MPS students," Apr. 7, 2010). And a study in June 2009 of students using vouchers to attend private schools in Florida reported that they were doing no better and no worse than similar students in public schools.

It's too soon to know if the Douglas County school board will go through with its plan. If it does, we can expect to see other affluent districts follow suit. But remember that parents do not choose schools solely on the basis of academic results. As I wrote recently, they often make their choices for holistic, social and logistic reasons. Therefore, studies focusing only on academic outcomes do not tell the whole story.

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The opinions expressed in Walt Gardner's Reality Check are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.

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