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Sirico Parables book

What Can Be Done?

In a different book, I have discussed a number of important steps that would have to be taken before there is any hope for America's public schools. These moves include the following: (1) end coercive policies that force teachers to join unions like the NEA and AFT; (2) end the fraud known as teacher certification that has as its major purpose extending the power of the teachers' colleges and prolonging the careers of the education professors; (3) abolish teachers' colleges and shift the two or three professional education courses that might be needed to other academic departments; and (4) establish real testing of what teachers know. All of the above would require enlightened governors and state legislators who finally recognize the role that the unions and colleges of education have played in the collapse of America's schools. Other measures are also discussed now and then, including magnet schools and charter schools, both of which, it is said, increase family choice to some degree.

I have on several occasions mentioned that lots of people believe they have a solution for America's school crisis. That solution is the maligned and misrepresented voucher system. This chapter explains what a voucher system is all about while chapter four answers the major attacks leveled against it.

How a Voucher System Works

A voucher system is a way of delivering every American child from bad, unsafe, incompetent schools by turning their parents into consumers of education just as they are consumers of food and clothing. The goal is to make schools more productive at lower cost through competition.

Family choice in education allows all children to participate on a level playing field. All students could receive tuition vouchers that they could then redeem at any qualified school. As David Harmer explains, “That is the essence of school choice. It offers every child the opportunity for a better education by offering parents the freedom and the funding to choose the school that best meets their children's needs. This is a simple, fair idea whose time has come. If the love of liberty can open the Iron Curtain, surely it can open the government school system to healthy competition.”

Under a voucher system, the money for education would be distributed in a much different way than it presently is under the public school monopoly. Instead of education funds being sent to the government school district and then to the public school, the money would be sent directly to the families of school children in the form of a piece of paper or voucher. The parent then chooses the school that her child will attend and pays for that education with the voucher. Under this approach, parents become consumers, only in this case, they are shopping for the best possible education for their children. The institution selected by the family is reimbursed when it converts the voucher to cash. The vouchers can be valued in several different ways, one of which would recognize that it costs more to educate a student in some areas than in others. On the other hand, the value of vouchers could be the same for each recipient in the state or locality in which the voucher plan exists.

Under this approach, the state no longer funds and operates schools. Instead, the government offers incentives for others to operate schools through grants to families that use funds to pay for the educational services that they choose. In this way, the existing monopoly that government schools presently have is ended. There can and undoubtedly will still be public schools but they will have to compete for students and hence for money with private schools. The voucher then becomes the means by which American education is reformed through competition.


One of the most important arguments in support of school choice is the undeniable effect that competition and the discipline of the market has on the quality of schools. One reason why America's public schools are such a disaster is because they do not have to worry about competition. Good or bad, any particular public school is assured of the same number of students and the same amount of funding. Indeed there are times when the most money goes to the worst schools.

But suppose things changed and competiton from other schools resulted in the weak school losing students and funding. This introduction of competition and discipline into the academic market place would mean that unless the school became competitive by improving the quality of its programs, it would go out of business and its teachers would be out of a job. Consider how such a prospect might improve the performance of both teachers and administrators.

According to Pete du Pont, former governor of Delaware, it is time to realize that neither giving more money to public schools nor demanding closer monitoring of the use of this money is going to solve the educational crisis. What is needed, he maintains, is not more money or more regulation, but more competition. We should never underestimate the power of competition. “Competition,” writes du Pont,“will reward good schools, force bad schools to get better, and provide every family in the United States with choices it does not have today.”

Dupont goes on to illustrate the power of competition in the business world. “When a business -say a restaurant or even a private school - adopts policies that lead to poor quality products or unnecessarily high prices, the free choice of consumers eventually leads to fewer sales by this business. Consumers ' vote with their dollars' against the inefficient business by favoring other businesses that charge less or deliver a better product. In order to avoid bankruptcy, businesses must adopt policies that produce goods or services that are at least as good as or less expensive than those of their competitors. Those that fail are forced to close, and their assets are passed on to persons who are able to use them more efficiently. This 'market discipline' works well in other industries, including restaurants, hotels, and car manufacturing, even though the typical consumer could not identify which policies in these industries lead to good results and which to bad. In short, market discipline produces efficiency and quality without requiring that consumers be experts in how these objectives are achieved.”

Most of the debate about the quality of public schools has ignored the importance of restoring a similar kind of market discipline to American schooling. Government schools are protected from the discipline of the marketplace and thus have little or no incentive to offer an improved product at a lower cost. Students who attend government schools are usually given no choice. They are forced to attend whatever government school the school system dictates. Parents who choose to teach their children at home or send their children to private schools are still forced to pay for the public schools they don't want. If given a chance, many parents would opt to have their children educated in private schools. Indeed, across the nation, approximately half of all public school teachers choose to send their own children to private schools.

Because their schools are protected from the discipline of market forces, public school administrators lack any incentive to improve quality or performance. The bureaucrats don't care that huge sums of money are diverted from the classrooms to support the bureaucracy; they are the bureaucracy, and the lack of any real competition minimizes the importance of cost-effectiveness. According to Walbert and Bast, “Pay scales and management policies become shaped by the organized interest groups within the school systems, not the desire to encourage excellence and responsiveness to student and parent interests. Parental input in such areas as curriculum, discipline, and teacher recruitment becomes increasingly limited because parents have no real clout in negotiations with teachers and bureaucrats.”

In an interview described in USA Today (July 10, 1989), former U.S. Secretary of Education Lauro F. Cavazos said that “choice offers all involved the opportunity to select alternatives when they believe their neighborhood schools fail to provide the best possible educational opportunities. No child, regardless of circumstances, should be compelled to attend a second-rate school or one that fails to meet the child's special needs.” Any move that increases family choice and challenges existing schools, both public and private, with greater competition is bound to result in improvements in school performance. It is ironic that public school teachers send their own children to private schools at a significantly higher rate ( twice as often) as other parents. This is pretty good evidence that private schools are doing a better job; at least it suggests that public school teachers believe they are.

A Tale of Two Cities

As of early 1997, no statewide voucher plan exists. Recent efforts to gain approval for statewide voucher plans in California, Oregon and Washington failed after costly and misleading opposition from teachers' unions and liberal politicians. Nonetheless, interesting pilot programs have been established in a few localities, most notably Milwaukee, Wisconsin and Cleveland, Ohio.

Milwaukee, Wisconsin

Possibly the best known of the local plans exists in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. The Wisconsin state legislature passed the Milwaukee program in 1989 but limited it to a maximum of 930 students from low-income families. This was 1 percent of the enrollment in Milwaukee's public school system. Students qualifying for the program could attend private non-religious schools. At the start of the 1990-91 school year, 341 students participated by attending seven private schools; the state's cost was $733,800. At the start of the next schol year, enrollment jumped to 521 students and a cost of $1.3 million. The Wisconsin Supreme Court ruled in 1993 that vouchers were constitutional. But when the state legislature attempted to extend the program to religious schools, the Wisconsin Supreme Court deadlocked 3-3 over the issue of constitutionality. In August, 1996, a state judge ruled that the program could be expanded to as many as 15,000 Milwaukee students. Once again, religious schools could not be included in the program.

From the beginning, representatives of the public school establishment, liberal politicians, the NEA, and the NAACP tried to kill the program. The opposition of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, while predictable, also provides evidence for the easy way politically liberal African-Americans put their political ideology ahead of the well-being of the people they claim to represent.

A 1996 assessment of the Milwaukee program reports how third and fourth grade students in the program have reading scores 3-5 percentile points higher than similar low-income students attending the city's public schools. Math scores for the same children averaged 5 and 12 percentile points better. The authors of the report note that “If similar success could be achieved for all minority students nationwide, it could close the gap separating white and minority test scores by somewhere between one-third and more than one-half.”

In 1996, Daniel McGroarty published an important book about the Milwaukee experiment. The book includes powerful stories about the impact that the voucher program has had on the black children fortunate enough to escape Milwaukee's public schools. The book also provides a revealing look at the questionable tactics used by the opponents of The Milwaukee program. Vouchers for Milwaukee's inner city children were opposed by a coalition of liberal power brokers, including the Milwaukee branch of the National Association of Colored People (NAACP), the Wisconsin branch of the NEA ( the state's largest teachers' union), the PTA, and the Wisconsin Association of School District Administrators. The book makes clear the sense of betrayal that black families in the inner city feel towards their opponents in the NAACP and the liberal establishment who fought to keep their children from benefitting from attendance at private schools. In the words of black state legislator Polly Williams, the driving force behind the voucher program in Milwaukee, “They say they're liberal, but whenever it comes to empowering black people, they stab us in the back. We want self-determination, not handouts and dependency.”

Cleveland, Ohio

As in Milwaukee, the targeted beneficiaries of an experimental voucher program in Cleveland were poor and minority children living in the inner city. After protracted fights in the courts, the city of Cleveland was permitted to set aside 5.25 million dollars in voucher funds for 2,000 inner city children during the 1996-1997 school year. Christian schools, both Catholic and Protestant, were eligible for vouchers. The program has proved popular among poor, minority parents According to one mother, “Overall, I think this is going to be a great experience. My daughter is going to learn a lot more than what a public school is going to give her.”

As in Milwaukee, the fight for vouchers in Cleveland was led by couragous and dedicated black leaders in the inner city. In Wisconsin and Ohio, both initiatives were supported by Republican governors who fought off liberal opposition from Democrats who traditionally present themselves as the guardians of the poor and minorities. As reported by Nina Shokraii, “ Support for vouchers in Cleveland was so strong that nearly 6,000 students, almost all of them black, applied for only 2,000 slots, which were filled by lottery. By mid-September of this year [1996], 1,410 of the students had enrolled in a religious school. Councilwoman Lewis, a mother and 46-year Cleveland resident, attributes this flight to public schools' dismal educational record and indifference to parents. 'The quality of public schools in [black neighborhoods] is poor,' she says. 'The roofs leak and the schools sometimes lack books, chairs, and other materials. Of the more than $7,000 spent on each child in the Cleveland public schools, only a fraction goes to classroom education.'”

It is now expected that either the Cleveland or Milwaukee plans will end up before the U.S. Supreme Court and result in a court ruling before the end of the century.

1997 should be a big year for school choice advocates. Republican Governor Arne Carlson of Minnesota, for example, has introduced a sweeping reform called Student's First which allows a tax deduction for up to $3,000 annually per family for school expenses. The plan also includes a $1,000 per child state credit for both tuition and home schoolers. Needless to say, his excellent program will be challenged by all the usual suspects whose interest is bureaucratic preservation rather than student education.