Who Says Vouchers Wouldn't Work?

(Page 3 of 5)

Indeed, vouchers probably have no more passionate enemy than Albert Shanker, president of the American Federation of Teachers. For years, Shanker has written a column published as a paid advertisement in the New York Times, and several have been devoted to lambasting vouchers.

In 1971, Shanker wrote, "The greater the free choice granted by a voucher plan, the more will the educational interests of poor, black and difficult children suffer." (Never mind that "poor, black and difficult children" under the current system are ordinarily the ones with the least possibility of affording private alternatives to inferior government schools.) "Our public schools...are designed to keep our society together," he opined in 1979. "Vouchers are designed to use tax money to pull our society apart." (Never mind that the all-important purpose of schools is educational, not social, and that in this purpose they have by wide agreement failed miserably.)

And in a 1980 column: "There would be competition among schools in much the same way as there is now competition among toothpaste companies, auto manufacturers and department stores. Some enterprising schools might offer gifts to newly enrolling students in much the same way that savings banks offer such gifts to new depositors. Or...students might be offered rewards for enrolling their friends!" (Never mind that precisely such competition has resulted in largely satisfied toothpaste, auto, and department store customers.) Shanker and his teachers union colleagues were first mobilized by a voucher study conducted in the late '60s under Christopher Jencks's direction at the Center for the Study of Public Policy in Cambridge, Massachusetts. The authors of the study endorsed education vouchers; but unlike the simple Friedman plan, theirs included a number of special restrictions on the vouchers. For example, they recommended that local government agencies be given a mandate to:

-establish higher voucher payments for poor and mentally handicapped students;

-regulate schools' admissions and expulsions policies ("one critical notion in our report was that a voucher school should admit nearly everyone who wanted to attend, space permitting," Jencks recently told Reason); and,

-forbid parents to pay any tuition out of their own pockets to supplement their children's vouchers.

The Nixon administration's Office of Economic Opportunity (oeo), still populated with a number of Great Society bureaucrats, had supported this study. Bolstered by rhetorical support from Friedmanite libertarians, OEO began in 1970 to look for a test site for a voucher experiment. But when they broached the idea in Seattle, San Francisco, and Rochester, they ran into a buzzsaw of opposition.

Those who favored racial integration opposed vouchers because they saw in them a way out for white students, not a way in for blacks. The more OEO tried to contend with their objections, the more the anti-integration forces shied away from the idea. Church-state separationists were put off when Catholics supported the plan. Local superintendents and board members began to view the whole scheme as causing far more trouble than it could possibly be worth, especially in view of the continuing necessity for taking in enough revenues to meet long-term fixed costs for school plants. Teachers unions, as usual, were strongly and actively opposed.

Vouchers' best chance came in New Hampshire, which had no racial-integration problem and a governor and state board of education chairman who were ardent free-marketeers. They prevailed on the Nixon administration to offer New Hampshire a "free market voucher," considerably less restrictive than the "regulated compensatory voucher" urged by Jencks and the OEO liberals. Fortified with ever-increasing federal funding, OEO and the state finally got five school districts to plan for a test-until the teachers' unions let loose their adamant opposition, and all five districts backed down.

Finally OEO found a test site, Alum Rock School District, a largely lower-middle-class and lower-class area in San Jose, California, with one of the lowest assessed property valuations per student in the state. After lengthy negotiations between the agency and school district officials, a three-year demonstration project was established in 1972.

It was set up to include 6 of the district's 24 public schools. Under the plan, 22 "minischools" were formed at the six participating schools. Eleven of the minischools emphasized general basic academic skills, while various others emphasized reading, math and science, fine arts, cross-cultural learning, and learning basic academic skills through practical everyday activities.

In the spring, each school would plan its minischool programs for the next year, and descriptions of all the district's minischools were compiled and sent to parents along with voucher forms. For each child, parents indicated on the voucher form their first three choices of programs and of schools where the programs were being offered. Each student had a spot guaranteed at his or her neighborhood school ("squatter's rights"). When there were not enough spaces in a minischool to accommodate all the applicants from outside the neighborhood, the available spaces were rationed out by lottery.

A "compensatory voucher" allotment addressed a worry of Jencks and his colleagues that in a voucher system, teachers and schools would want to teach middle-class and wealthy children while ignoring poorer children. To create a greater incentive for minischools to teach poor children, the voucher amount for Alum Rock students who were eligible for the federal school-lunch program was 30 percent higher.

"Alum Rock can show the way," the Los Angeles Times announced in 1973. They spoke a bit too soon. On the whole, the Alum Rock experiment proved to be a fiasco. A Rand Corporation study in 1974 found that in every voucher school, in all grades but one, students fell behind in achievement while students at Alum Rock's nonvoucher schools essentially held their own. Robert Klitgaard of Rand called it "one of the starkest downward effects I've ever seen."

But the Alum Rock project was hardly a test of the voucher idea. From the start, the experiment's design was far removed from an authentic voucher plan. For one thing, private schools were effectively excluded. They were technically eligible for vouchers but had to comply with a host of district regulations concerning teacher certification, curriculum standards, student discipline, and more. For that reason, no private school ever actually received a voucher.

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