Article Published in The Manchester (NH) Union Leader
Supporters of parental choice lost a battle when the House and Senate education panels stripped from President Bush’s reform a proposal to let children stuck in the very worst public schools use up to $1,500 of their federal Title I subsidy toward tuition at private schools.
But Senator Judd Gregg hopes to salvage a degree of federal encouragement of school choice when S1 reaches the Senate floor for debate over the next several days.
Gregg’s amendment would provide $50 million in federal grants to 10 cities and three states wishing to set up school-choice demonstration projects. The participating jurisdictions would give low-income parents “educational certificates” equaling the cost of tuition at a public or private school, the total not to exceed the home school district’s average per-pupil expenditure.
The New Hampshire Republican champions the idea of “portability” — the point being that school aid should go to the child instead of a faceless system, and that ultimate accountability should be to families instead of to bureaucrats. Gregg argues that with a “child-centered” approach “families are empowered and schools are compelled to improve in order to keep their students.” The amendment he will introduce on the Senate floor calls for independent researchers to document the effect of choice on student achievement, parental satisfaction and involvement, and the quality of the public schools. (A similar measure may be introduced in the House as well.)
>From a variety of privately and publicly funded experiments there already is mounting evidence that school choice helps the choosers — that, is those students primarily from low-income, high-minority urban areas who receive vouchers empowering them to transfer from failing public schools to better-performing private ones. Test scores increase and parental satisfaction soars. But voucher foes claim that choice lures away the most educationally engaged families and leaves public schools in a death spiral as they try to deal with the hardest-to-handle cases while their resources dry up.
The reality bubbling out of school choice experiments tells a different story. The pressure of vouchers is energizing public schools to reform when nothing else seems to have worked.
In Milwaukee, which has pioneered public vouchers since 1990, former school superintendent Howard Fuller observes that the public school system began to respond in serious ways in 1998 when the Wisconsin Supreme Court upheld an expansion of vouchers to include religious schools. Fuller, who heads the recently formed Black Alliance for Educational Options, noted that Milwaukee schools now offer private tutors if children are unable to read by the third grade and have finally responded to parental requests for schools offering such alternatives as the Montessori method.
Vouchers were the catalyst for constructive change in Milwaukee and they now command widespread, bipartisan support in that city.
Florida is quickly demonstrating on a statewide basis the catalytic power of vouchers. Although relatively few vouchers have been awarded so far, the mere competitive threat of vouchers has motivated public-school staffs to raise student achievement.
In 1999, the Florida legislature enacted Gov. Jeb Bush’s A-Plus reform plan to make state-funded $3,400 “Opportunity Scholarships” available to families when their public schools flunk a state evaluation twice in a four-year period. The Florida Comprehensive Achievement Test, which measures reading, writing, and math, is a major part of the assessment. Low-scoring schools receive extra state funding to beef up their instruction, but if they continue to fail, vouchers become an implement of accountability.
In the early testing, two Pensacola schools were the only ones falling under the voucher mandate; however, another 78 received their first “F” and therefore were on the brink of seeing their patrons become voucher-eligible. The expectation was that after the Spring, 2000 testing, hundreds of Florida students would receive vouchers. But when the scores came in, all 78 schools had pulled up their achievement to a passing level.
A February, 2001 study for the Manhattan Institute showed that schools in peril of failing a second time scored gains more than twice as large as those achieved by other Florida schools. The study by Dr. Jay Greene of Harvard University concluded that “the threat of competition in education elicits a positive response from public schools.” Florida schools under the gun took such actions as initiating afternoon and Saturday small-group tutoring and replacing failed whole-language reading instruction with systematic phonics.
Voucher foes claim the successes in widely scattered places are “inconclusive” or “anecdotal.” It would stand to reason, then, that they should support Senator Gregg’s bid for a national demonstration project to establish the truth once and for all. Unless, that is, truth is what they fear.
Contact info for Bob Holland
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Robert Holland is a senior fellow at the Lexington Institute.
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