Highlights Potential Obstacles To School Voucher Programs And Urban
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.
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.
central lesson of Clevelands initial experience with choice
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
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
uncertainty bred by lawsuits has been a strike against Clevelands
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 familys choice.
intent was to apply the principles of the marketplace to education
and make the traditional public schools more effective by exerting
the time, Clevelands system was widely viewed as being in
crisis. Per-pupil expenditures were high, standardized test scores
were low, rampant administrative turnover fed confusion, the citys
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
schools were "rocked by a number of significant events in the
years following the introduction of the voucher program," write
Hess and McGuinn.
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."
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 citys 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.
enrollment in the voucher program grew to about 5 percent of Clevelands
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
addition to the legal turmoil, political battles clouded the voucher
programs 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 superintendents
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
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
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.
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.
and of themselves, markets are not an elixir, and they will not
magically improve schooling," Hess writes in "Revolution
at the Margins."
markets do is harness and channel self-interest. If they do so in
ways that force schools to improve, then competition will prove
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.
interviews, contact McGuinn at (434) 970-2675 or e-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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 http://www.tcrecord.org.
Lee Graves, (434) 924-6857 or Patrick J. McGuinn, (434) 970-2675