The United States Supreme Court heard arguments recently in a case involving school vouchers. Though public support for vouchers remains low, many politicians still advance the idea as a solution to the nation's perceived educational problems. The Supreme Court's decision, which is due to come out by next summer, is likely to stimulate the ongoing debate about school reform.
The National School Boards Association has published a report entitled "Vouchers: The Closer You Look, the Worse They Look." The report highlights eight frequent myths about vouchers and offers evidence to refute them. Here are excerpts from their findings:
Myth #1: Vouchers empower parents to send their child to the school of their choice. Private schools, not parents, make the final call on whether to admit a student. In the Milwaukee voucher program, the private schools determine how many students with vouchers they want to enroll and may hold a lottery to determine which students will be accepted and which ones will be denied admission.
Myth #2: Vouchers will save taxpayers money. Vouchers stand to do just the opposite by requiring taxpayers to pay for two school systems, one public and one private. The high-profile school voucher proposal that California voters rejected in November 2000 would have cost state taxpayers $3.2 billion just to pay for vouchers for students already enrolled in private schools.
Myth #3: Private schools will not turn away high-needs students who have vouchers. That is precisely what occurs, according to voucher advocates, parents of former voucher students, and participating private schools. The one-time leader of the voucher push in Ohio and a former operator of Cleveland voucher schools made this revealing comment in a memo to the state's governor: "Numerous scholarship (voucher) recipients were discouraged from taking their scholarships to private schools with the full knowledge that none of the existing private schools will be able to handle a seriously handicapped child."
Myth #4: Private voucher-redeeming schools are accountable. Vouchers make a mockery of public accountability by channeling tax dollars into private schools that need not comply with open meetings and records laws, adhere to state academic standards, or report on students' academic achievement. All taxpayers financially support voucher programs and therefore accountability must extend to all taxpayers.
Myth #5: Vouchers improve students' academic achievement. Evidence shows that these claims are unfounded, and in some cases, the opposite is true. Major research studies of the Milwaukee and Cleveland voucher programs have "found little or no difference in voucher and public school students' performance." In contrast, one study revealed that students who attended private schools established in response to the voucher program scored lower than their public school peers in all academic subjects.
Myth #6: Vouchers Improve the Public Schools. This claim also is based more on speculation than evidence, a point made in a recent RAND Corporation analysis. The mere notion that voucher programs improve public school districts defies common sense. The Cleveland and Milwaukee programs divert millions of dollars from those cities' public schools while leaving behind tens of thousands of students, including those with the greatest needs.
Myth #7: African-Americans are clamoring for vouchers. African-Americans have consistently voted against voucher proposals and public opinion polls suggest they clearly prefer other education initiatives. Despite significant overtures to the African-American community by voucher advocates, African-Americans overwhelmingly voted against recent voucher proposals.
Myth #8: Vouchers are simply an 'escape hatch' for poor students in bad public schools. This political spin is merely a smoke screen by most voucher advocates whose real goal is a full-blown voucher system open to families of all incomes and including all current private school students.
The full text of the report can be found at www.nsba.org.
There is no question that many school districts face serious challenges and most educators support meaningful and adequately funded school reforms. However, for all of the reasons stated here and more, vouchers are not the answer.