The U.S. Supreme Court has just taken up school vouchers -- the most important education controversy in half a century and arguably the Court's most important case this year.
Not since the historic 1954 Brown v. Board of Education decision outlawing "separate but equal" schooling has there been an issue of such educational importance.
Conservatives have spinned vouchers as a way to increase achievement for low-income minorities. And clearly, reducing the Black/white academic achievement gap is one of this country's highest educational priorities.
But the academic case for vouchers rests rests on rhetoric, not reality.
In Milwaukee, home of the country's oldest and largest voucher program, no one has any idea how students in voucher schools are performing academically. In fact, accountability is so lax that no academic data has been collected from voucher schools for more than six years.
Rather than succomb to the false promises of vouchers, we should concentrate on proven programs -- such as smaller classes and better teacher training -- that improve our public schools.
There are currently three voucher programs under which public tax dollars pay for tuition at private schools, including religious schools: one in Milwaukee, with about 10,000 students; one in Cleveland, with about 4,300 students; and a small pilot program in Florida. The Cleveland case is now before the U.S. Supreme Court, beginning with oral arguments that focus on whether the program violates the separation of church and state.
The only official report on the 10-year-old Milwaukee program, by Wisconsin's non-partisan Legislative Audit Bureau in February 2000, pointedly notes that "some hopes for the [voucher] program -- most notably, that it would increase participating pupils' academic achievement -- cannot be documented."
Furthermore, almost a third of the Milwaukee voucher schools studied at that time were either not accredited, not seeking accreditation, or not subject to any independent review of educational quality.
The story in Cleveland is hardly any better. Independent researchers hired by the state of Ohio, for instance, have found little difference in academic achievement between students who received vouchers and students who attended Cleveland public schools.
When voucher supporters tout the success of the Milwaukee program, here are some realities they fail to mention:
- Voucher schools do not have to hire certified teachers or even require a college degree.
- Voucher schools do not have to administer the statewide tests required of public schools.
- Voucher schools do not have to publicly release data such as test scores, attendance figures, or suspension, expulsion, and dropout rates.
Voucher backers rely on the unproven assumption that private schools are inherently better than public schools. Yet the one time the Milwaukee Archdiocese released information on test scores in its schools, the data showed a gap between white and minority scores that was no better than that of the public schools.
Contrast the lack of information about Milwaukee vouchers with the results of to a state program to reduce class sizes in low-income public schools in kindergarten through third grade. According to the most recent report, released this January, the class size reduction program "consistently improves the test scores of participating students throughout the first three years of elementary school."
No one denies that our public schools need drastic improvement. But rather than throwing one's support behind dubious voucher schemes, it would be far better to back proven reforms for our public schools such as smaller schools, smaller classes, improved teacher training, and adequate resources for all children.
Voucher schools, by their very nature, are private schools not beholden to society at large. It is only our public schools that are committed to serving all children.
If we care about all children, we need to reform, not abandon, our public schools.
Barbara Miner is managing editor of Rethinking Schools (www.rethinkingschools.org), a Milwaukee-based education reform journal. She has been covering the issue of vouchers for more than a decade.