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Study Highlights Potential Obstacles To School Voucher Programs And Urban Education Reform

June 26 , 2002-- Competition might be a driving force in markets and malls, but two University of Virginia researchers caution that market-based education reforms often face obstacles that can limit their effectiveness.

An experimental school voucher program in Cleveland has provided choices to low-income parents since it was launched seven years ago. That effort to stimulate reform in the public school system has shown that competition must be viewed in context.

"The central lesson of Cleveland’s initial experience with choice reforms … is not that competition cannot cause urban school systems to change. It is that the timing and degree of such changes will depend in large part on the particular educational, political and organizational context," write Frederick M. Hess and Patrick J. McGuinn in an article in the current issue of Teachers College Record.

The educational impact of Cleveland's voucher system has been overshadowed by legal challenges, which eventually led to the U.S. Supreme Court. On June 27, a bitterly divided court upheld the program's constitutionality in a landmark ruling that is generating renewed debate over education policy.

The uncertainty bred by lawsuits has been a strike against Cleveland’s program since shortly after it was launched in 1995. The plan called for low-income parents in selected districts to receive a $2,500 voucher that could be used at a private, parochial or alternative public school of the family’s choice.

The intent was to apply the principles of the marketplace to education and make the traditional public schools more effective by exerting competitive pressure.

At the time, Cleveland’s system was widely viewed as being in crisis. Per-pupil expenditures were high, standardized test scores were low, rampant administrative turnover fed confusion, the city’s teachers’ union was threatening to strike and desegregation efforts were unsuccessful. Describing the district as "a ship without a rudder," a circuit judge turned control of the system over to the state in 1995 (control was transferred to the mayor in 1997 when courts found the city had fulfilled its obligation to desegregate).

Cleveland’s schools were "rocked by a number of significant events in the years following the introduction of the voucher program," write Hess and McGuinn.

The lottery drawing for vouchers was held prematurely, transportation problems arose, public awareness was limited and teachers’ reactions ranged from apathetic to hostile. "The Cleveland [teachers’] union leadership responded to the voucher program not by pushing for educational reforms but by waging a political struggle against the program."

A key question about the program, formally called the Cleveland Scholarship and Tutoring Program, was where voucher students would enroll given the limited number of available seats in the city’s participating private schools. David Brennan, an Akron industrialist and a proponent of choice reforms, opened two academies specifically to serve voucher students, but so many problems arose that he closed the schools and reopened them as charter schools in 1999.

While enrollment in the voucher program grew to about 5 percent of Cleveland’s total school enrollment, most of the voucher students attended private schools. In fact, during the 1999-2000 school year 96 percent of the 3,761 students who received vouchers attended religious (primarily Catholic) schools.

In addition to the legal turmoil, political battles clouded the voucher program’s future. Former Gov. George Voinovich and state legislators tussled not only over the existence of the program but also over its funding and regulation. Turnover in the school superintendent’s office and administration, combined with weak leadership by the school board, made it less likely that the public school system would respond effectively to competitive pressures even had they felt them.

"In one of the often overlooked ironies of the choice debate, the potential market impact of educational competition on schools is likely to be particularly sensitive to issues of governance and to political decisions, including the actions of the state legislature, the local board of education, the mayor and the courts," Hess and McGuinn write.

In Cleveland, for example, the small size, early difficulties and bleak political and legal prospects of the voucher program, as well as the low voucher amount and limited private school capacity, sharply limited the threat the program posed to the public school system.

The impact of vouchers and other programs that are based on using competitive pressures to reform education will depend to a considerable extent on political, bureaucratic, legal and cultural factors.

"In and of themselves, markets are not an elixir, and they will not magically improve schooling," Hess writes in "Revolution at the Margins."

"What markets do is harness and channel self-interest. If they do so in ways that force schools to improve, then competition will prove beneficial."

Frederick M. Hess, director of the Virginia Center for Educational Policy Studies, is an assistant professor of government and education at U.Va. and author of "Revolution at the Margins: The Impact of Competition on Urban School Systems," published by the Brookings Institution Press. Patrick J. McGuinn is a doctoral candidate in politics at U.Va. and former high school teacher.

For interviews, contact McGuinn at (434) 970-2675 or e-mail him at Hess will be out of the country until mid-July. A summary and full text of the article are available at the Teachers College Record Web site at

Contacts: Lee Graves, (434) 924-6857 or Patrick J. McGuinn, (434) 970-2675

FOR ADDITIONAL INFORMATION: Contact the Office of University Relations at (434) 924-7116. Television reporters should contact the TV News Office at (434) 924-7550.

SOURCE: U.Va. News Services


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