Free Market Policies and Public Education :What Is the Cost of Choice?>

Article excerpt

Both advocates and opponents of vouchers set forth arguments that, while tremendously passionate, are based largely on ideology, with minimal or only selective reliance on factual evidence. Mr. Metcalf and Ms. Tait examine what is currently known about voucher programs and proposals, in order to promote a better understanding of the issue.

WHILE SCHOOL choice programs can take many forms, each of which raises issues regarding the role and scope of public education, voucher programs proposals to provide families with public funds to be used at the public or private school of their choice are undoubtedly the most hotly debated alternative.

Both advocates and opponents of vouchers set forth arguments that, while tremendously passionate, are based largely on ideology, with minimal or only selective reliance on factual evidence. The result has been an antagonistic, vocal, highly visible confrontation between "believers" and "nonbelievers." Because the voucher issue has the potential to result in substantial changes in public education and will affect the lives of millions of children, it is important to examine what is known about voucher programs and proposals as the debate continues.

Toward this end, we will discuss questions related to the impetus for including voucher programs among the options provided by the current choice movement, the nature or structure of existing school voucher programs, and the findings of research on the effects of those voucher programs. It must be acknowledged at the outset that definitive answers about the fundamental goodness of publicly funded voucher programs are not now available and may never be. Our present purpose is merely to promote a better understanding of the issue.

Voucher Programs And School Choice

The school choice movement the notion of providing children and families with options for the school and educational program in which they participate without regard for the neighborhood in which they live includes a broad range of approaches. Among the many examples are magnet schools, alternative schools, charter schools, tax credits for private school tuition, intradistrict choice plans, interdistrict choice plans, and even alternative programs within a single school. Each of these, to varying degrees, offers parents the ability to select for their children educational options in curriculum, instruction, and philosophical contexts. Such programs are available, if not required by legislation, in each of the 50 states and in most moderate to large school districts. Greater choice is made possible by providing families with money (in the form of a voucher) that can be used for tuition in any participating school, usually including both public and private schools. As a result, voucher programs differ from most other choice programs in at least three important ways. First, and usually most contentiously, the programs allow parents to use the voucher to select from among both public and private schools. Virtually all other choice proposals allow choice only among public schools or programs, though charter schools are, arguably, neither fully public nor fully private. Second, all currently operating voucher programs include schools with religious affiliations. The state-funded voucher program in Milwaukee was an exception until recent court rulings allowed the program to expand to include both secular and religious private schools. Third, unlike other choice approaches, 14 of the 16 existing voucher programs in the U.S. operate on private rather than public funding.1 It may be in this regard that they present their greatest threat to public education.

What Are the Arguments For Voucher Programs?

The case for parents to have greater choice and voice in their children's education is made by those of all political stripes and persuasions, from far right to far left; by members of majority and minority ethnic groups; by the wealthy and the poor, by the religious and the secular. …


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