School Vouchers: An Exchange

By Robert Lowe

Dan Grego asks, “Why shouldn’t low income people be entitled to the same educational opportunities as the affluent?” He looks to vouchers as one vehicle for achieving that equity and castigates Rethinking Schools for opposing Governor Thompson’s plan to provide vouchers to 1 low income students.

Clearly, voucher plans have the greatest chance to promote equity when they target those_ students least likely to have access to, decent educational opportunities, but Grego fails to analy Thompson’s plan or to ask why the Governor all of a sudden seems so sensitive to the interests of the poor. We see Thompson’s voucher pro­posal as a token gesture that will provide too little meaningful choice to too few students. More significantly, we see it as a tactical move in a conservative agenda to promote the acceptance of vouchers for all students. Such an eventuality would promote greater inequality. .

Contemporary voucher proposals like Thompson’s have their roots in the formulations of conservative economist Milton Friedman. More than thirty years ago he put forward the thesis that placing education on a free market basis would improve education by breaking the public school monopoly. In his scheme educational vouchers would be equivalent in value. These could be spent on tuition at any school certified to meet basic requirements. As a result, Friedman’s reasoning goes, parents would have greatly expanded choice, and schools, forced to compete for their clientele, would have the incentive to improve their services.

At first glance Friedman appears to have guaranteed equality by standardizing the dollar value of each voucher. In reality, this surface equality would generate substantial inequality since more affluent families would be able to add their own resources to their vouchers in order to pay for schools that charge higher tuition. Obviously, the poor would have no such option, and schools in the end even more likely would be stratified by the class background of students than they are today.

Not only would such a voucher plan promote class stratification in schools, but also division by·race, as whites would have the option to support racially exclusive schools. In fact, it was essentially a voucher plan that whites used in Virginia to circumvent school desegregation in the 1950’s.

Finally, Friedman’s scheme would reduce parents to individual education maximizers. Personal gain alone would be the motive force of educational choice. The conviction that education should be a shared financial effort, that schools should gather diverse students to better overcome provincialism and to better promote social responsibility and racial tolerance, would dissolve into a pursuit of self-interest in which the less privileged competitors would be fettered.

What does this have to do with the Governor’s plan? His proposal appears to overcome the obvious frailties of a pure free market agenda. Vouchers would be targeted to low income students and only schools that did not discriminate in their entrance policies would be eligible 10· receive them. Furthermore, private options for low income students, particularly for low income, minority students would be justified since the democratic promise of the common school typically has eluded them. A closer look, however, will reveal that Thompson’s plan is but a meager departure from Friedman’s.

First, the voucher would be no greater than the per pupil expenditure of the Milwaukee Public Schools. This would mean that it could be insufficient to pay for some private options, and it would be inadequate to pay for a number of public options. The 1988 Public Po.Hey Forum report, “Public Schooling in the Milwaukee Metropolitan Area,” documents per pupil school expenditures for the metropolitan Milwaukee area during the 1987-88 year. Seven of the fifteen school districts in Milwaukee County had per pupil costs greater than the Milwaukee Public Schools. Assuming such differences in expenditures remain constant, approximately $250 would have to be added to each voucher for a student to attend Shorewood, around $350 for Whitefish Bay, and more than $1,000 for Nicolet Union. Furthermore, the cost of transportation would be added to these figures to complete a picture of the financial burden. It’s obviously of little use to the poor to get vouchers that must be supplemented with funds they don’t have.

While the dollar value of the vouchers would restrict options, the voucher plan would have other limitations as well. Participating schools, as Grego says, must not “discriminate in their entrance policy on the basis of race, creed or gender.” This in itself would not reduce thv pool of available options, since no school in Milwaukee County is likely to profess discriminatory entrance policies. But there is nothing to keep potential receiving schools from basing selection on the grade averages or test scores of prospective students. For transfer students accepted, there is no prohibition on placing them in lower tracks than resident students, nor any guarantee that transfers would not face arbitrary disciplinary procedure . In addition, transferring students would make up too small a percentage of the population of each host school to be a significant force in promoting more equitable policies. Such concerns are not imaginary as the experience of many minority students with the 220 Plan will confirm.

If some schools would remain out of reach to voucher recipients and others would be uncongenial to their academic development, there would still remain the option of creating schools that better speak to the needs of low income students. This is an exciting possibility, though one mired in financial and logistical problems. Unlike schools already in operation, these would have to rely solely on voucher-bearing students. Such institutions would have to develop constituencies over time, and planning would be hindered by the indefinite number of students who would attend from year to year. Furthermore, start-up costs for planning, purchase of buildings and equipment, arrangement of transportation, and hiring teachers might well exceed the value of initial vouchers received. There would be no endowments that elite private institutions enjoy to tide such schools over. In fact, from a fiscal point of view corporations would be better able to raise capital and practice economies of scale than grassroots educators. It is_ doubtful, however, that MacSchool franchises would generate meaningful educational options.

Ultimately, the problem with the nature of the Governor’s voucher plan is not that it would not expand choice to low income students, but that it is a trivial gesture that would offer too little choice of consequence to too few students. On its own terms the plan is innocuous. It is unlikely, however, that the same Governor who has supported cysts in AFDC and opposed a $.50 raise in the minimum wage has much interest in even modestly empowering the poor. It is likely that his voucher plan is part of a larger agenda to make vouchers universal. If realized, such an agenda would have devastating consequences for equality of educational opportunity. In any case, greater decentralization and community input in public schools, as offered by the proposal to create a North Division School District, have much more potential to engender quality education for the poor than the Governor’s voucher plan.

Robert Lowe on behalf of the Editorial Committee of Rethinking Schools.