Effectiveness of school vouchers still in question
On church-state issues, George W. Bush's honeymoon period may be over before it starts.
Inauguration Day is still weeks away, but the president-elect is
already promising to make his proposal for school vouchers a priority early in
The Bush plan would require failing public schools to give parents
vouchers to pay tuition at private schools — including religious schools
— or give parents the option of sending their child to a different public
Leading Democrats (and some Republicans) have lost no time in
declaring the voucher idea a “nonstarter.” In their view, vouchers
are unconstitutional schemes that use tax dollars to support religious schools.
Moreover, they argue, taking money away from public schools in order to improve
their performance makes little sense.
The battle lines are clearly drawn.
Since voucher programs have fared poorly both in the courts and at the
polls in recent months, some in Congress have urged Bush to pull back from
proposing a federal program, at least until the Supreme Court rules on the
constitutionality of including religious schools.
But the president-elect intends to go full steam ahead, convinced that
the more choices parents have, the more accountable public schools will be.
Is there any “common ground” on vouchers? Not much —
at least not until the Supreme Court decides whether or not religious schools
may be included.
If the court gives the green light, then the public-policy debates on
vouchers in Congress and state legislatures are likely to produce some new
Look for the number of voucher experiments to proliferate around the
nation, especially in poor districts with failing public schools. These plans
may be well received in many neighborhoods, given the growing number of
African-American and other minority parents who support vouchers (even though
many of their national leaders continue to warn against such plans).
Apart from the First Amendment issue of church-state separation, the
big question about vouchers is: Do they work?
Volumes have been written for and against vouchers by a bewildering
array of “experts” on both sides.
But if you want to get beyond the rhetoric, I recommend the objective
and fair-minded analysis issued by the Center on Education Policy (CEP), an
independent think tank in Washington, D.C.
After examining research on voucher programs and listening to a panel
of opponents and proponents, the CEP concluded that “current information
is inadequate to accurately determine whether vouchers improve student
achievement levels or other outcomes.”
In other words, we don't know yet if voucher plans will work. We need
more studies based on extensive evaluations and unbiased research.
Much is at stake for public schools and the nation in the upcoming
debate on vouchers in the Congress and in the court. That's why policy-makers
need to heed CEP's advice and do the needed research to answer the unanswered
questions about vouchers.
As the center puts it: “Without objectively addressing all the
issues relating to current voucher programs, the debate will remain polarized
and divisive, thereby undermining efforts to reach the shared common goal
— improving student achievement.”
For a complete copy of the center's report “School Vouchers: What
We Know and Don't Know … and How We Could Learn More,” visit the CEP
Web site at www.ctredpol.org