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School Vouchers Are Not New

If Betsy DeVos is confirmed as secretary of education as expected, vouchers will almost certainly move to center stage ("Vouchers, Charters and DeVos's Blind Spot," The New York Times, Dec. 22). Although they are widely believed to be a new entry in education, they have been tried before, and have not worked as expected.

In 1989, New Zealand underwent the most dramatic transformation of education in an industrialized country in history.  Under a plan known as Tomorrow's Schools, all parents were given the right to apply to any school anywhere in the country.  The equivalent of a voucher followed the students to the schools where they were accepted.  On paper, the strategy seemed perfect.

But what followed serves as a cautionary tale for the U.S. The most sophisticated parents quickly took advantage of the opportunity, which resulted in the best schools rapidly filling up.  These schools then began to turn away hard-to-teach children, disproportionately from poor minority backgrounds.  Those rejected were forced to return to their schools of origin, which became significantly more polarized along socioeconomic and ethnic lines than before.

Recognizing that their plan had resulted in unintended consequences, the government began to pull back.  All of the above is masterfully detailed in When Schools Compete (Brookings Institution Press 2000) by Fiske and Ladd.

To avoid New Zealand's pitfalls, the U.S. believes that the lotteries now used when demand for admission to charter schools exceeds the number of slots available is the answer.  But I think less sophisticated parents will continue to be at a distinct disadvantage if vouchers are implemented.  Moreover, the question of oversight of schools accepting vouchers still is not settled.  As a result, I urge great caution before going ahead.

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