EDUCATION: by John BallantyneNews Weekly
School vouchers - giving power back to parents
, July 31, 2004
Should government or parents have the greater say in choosing where a child is schooled? John Ballantyne looks at some American experiments with voucher-funding for schools.Unable to halt the deteriorating standards of government schools, some American states are giving parents vouchers to enable them to choose between government-run and independent schools.
Under this radical scheme, parents of a school-age child receive vouchers - specially earmarked public funds - which can be redeemed at any school which meets approved standards.
As with Australia's ongoing controversy over state aid to independent schools, America's vouchers have stirred up a storm of opposition from government bureaucrats and radical teacher unions.
Opponents claim that vouchers are designed to siphon off tax dollars from the public school system and subsidise wealthy private schools.
But America's recent voucher experiments, far from being a rich school's charter, have in many instances been deliberately targetted towards needy families in deprived neighbourhoods.
The results have confounded the critics. Under the scheme, numerous independent and religious schools have demonstrated a capacity to offer substantially better schooling for children, at a lower cost than government-run schools.
A few years ago, the Ohio legislature, overwhelmed by its inability to improve the performance of inner-city government schools, issued a limited number of school vouchers to parents in eight urban districts in the city of Cleveland, so that poor parents could afford to pay private school fees.
So popular were the vouchers that the initial issues were oversubscribed.
For parents fortunate enough to qualify, the benefits were overwhelming. And the non-government schools in which they enrolled their children - notably Catholic parochial schools - began chalking up remarkable successes with the very children that the government school system had abandoned as uneducable.
Numerous studies have shown - not just in Cleveland, but in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, and parts of Florida, where voucher schemes have also been allowed to operate - that such schools have significantly improved these children's test scores, graduation rates and future employment prospects.
One such parochial school, in an inner-city Cleveland slum, even made headlines in Time
magazine a few years ago when it transformed the future prospects of deprived youngsters. St Adalbert's Catholic school, on Cleveland's east side, was able to educate its 400 children (from kindergarten to Year 8) on less than a third of the per-pupil costs of a comparatively sized government-run school - and got impressive results.
Critics of school choice often argue that private schools have an unfair advantage because, unlike government schools, they can select the "cream of the crop" and expel disruptive students. But St Adalbert's experience has decisively disproved this view.
St Adalbert's has taken in crack babies, children who had scored D and F grades at government-run schools, and known disruptive students. The school's principal for 12 years, Lydia Harris, said at the time of Cleveland's choice experiment a few years ago:
"There's no cream on my crop until we put it there. It's a myth that we take discipline problems and throw them out of school. It's the other way around. I get the kids the public schools can't handle."
More than two-thirds of her students have come from families below the poverty line. Yet, thanks to a solid core curriculum, minimal bureaucracy, and disciplined and structured classrooms, St Adalbert's has seen more than 90 per cent of its pupils go on to post-secondary education or to paid jobs.
Much of the school's success is owing to the shared values of its staff, the involvement of parents, the strict standards for social behaviour among students, and a neat dress code including mandatory school uniforms.
As a result, the environment in St Adalbert is in striking contrast to that of many government-run schools where many teachers live in fear of their students. At St Adalbert's there are no drugs, teenage pregnancies, gangs or violence - and no need for guards and metal detectors.
During Lydia Harris's term as principal, St Adalbert's boasted a near zero expulsion rate of only .04 per cent.
The drawback of American voucher schemes has been that, to date, they have usually been severely limited in scope. Vouchers are rarely made available to more than a few lucky candidates.
In Cleveland, during its pilot scheme, only 5,000 out of 70,000 inner-city children were able to benefit from school-choice.
Yet there is abundant evidence of American parental dissatisfaction with many inner-city government-run schools. As Time
magazine has reported:
"Like passengers on the Titanic
who have just heard about a lifeboat raffle, low-income parents are the most excited about vouchers." (Time
, September 23, 1996).
One year, when 6,500 Cleveland students from disadvantaged backgrounds applied for only 2,000 voucher-funded places, the government had to distribute them via a lottery. At a parochial school, St Ignatius, the principal Sister Theresine Cregan recalls the subsequent registration night. "Parents came in weeping, they were so happy for this program," she said.
Were vouchers to be made universal for all parents, it could transform schooling. Instead of schools looking to government for recurrent funding, they would have to work on improving their standards to attract student enrolments - which would be their sole source of funding.
But parents may have to wait a long time before governments concede to them the right to exercise choice in their children's schooling.
Confronting parents - be it in Australia or the United States - is a powerful political coalition of the government education bureaucracy and radical teacher unions, both of whom have a strong vested interest in maintaining the status quo and resisting anything which could threaten the government school monopoly.
These lobbies have been quick to exploit every opportunity to discredit and, if possible, prevent the introduction of school choice for parents.
In America, in particular, they have argued that voucher-funding for independent schools violates the US's historic constitutional separation of state and religion, because parents could spend their government-funded vouchers on religious schooling.
Defenders of vouchers, however, respond that vouchers are given not to religious schools but primarily to parents, who then exercise the ultimate choice of where to educate their children. The choice of religious or non-religious schooling, then, is the prerogative not of governments but of parents.
Opponents, however, also protest that vouchers supposedly help rich private schools at the expense of government-run schools. But vouchers need not reduce by one cent the government's overall education budget.
All vouchers do is to replace a government monopoly in the provision of schools with parental choice. Moreover, a voucher system is a far more effective way of targeting and assisting needy families.
In the absence of vouchers, the option of educating a child at an independent school is usually a privilege available only to parents who are prepared to make substantial sacrifices. Typically, such parents have to pay twice for their children's education - once in taxes for the government education they are not using, and again in fees for private schools.
Australia's policy of granting partial "state aid" to independent schools, while it is better than giving no state aid at all, is nevertheless unsatisfactory. Instead of targeting poor families for generous assistance, the Commonwealth government means-tests the schools the children happen to attend. Wealthier schools, which have their funding cut, then have to raise their fees, thus pushing the price of private education still further beyond the reach of poorer families.
Vouchers effectively enfranchise poor families and give them educational choices which, under the present system, so few are able to make.
To ensure access and equity in education, it is easy to arrange a voucher scheme in which qualifying independent schools must provide a proportion of their places free to poorer families. Alternatively, the government can target extra assistance to needy families by "topping up" their vouchers.
Howard Fuller, chairman of America's Black Alliance for Educational Options and a supporter of school vouchers, has spoken of the powerlessness of disadvantaged families with children in under-performing government schools. He says:
"The only people who are trapped in schools that don't work for them or their parents are the poor. We've got to create a way where the poorest parents have some of the options." [J. Garrett, "School Choice 2001", Heritage Foundation Policy Research and Analysis
The worst way of helping the poor is merely throwing more money at government schools. Former US education secretary, William Bennett, says: "Of all the problems of the public schools, very few of them remain untouched by choice. [With vouchers] you would have accountability, because people would leave bad schools." [The Economist
(London), September 7, 1996, pp.33-34].