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Voucher Reform for New York City Schools?

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Voucher Reform for New York City Schools?

Clive Belfield

On Thursday June 27, 2002, the constitutional status of the Cleveland Scholarship Tutoring Program was upheld, or as USA Today tells it, "Supreme Court OKs school vouchers."

The Program is a small-scale reform to offer more educational choices to low-income families in Cleveland: if the families want to attend a private school, the state will give them up to $2,250 toward the fees. Until stopped by the courts, almost 4,000 students had taken up the offer of this education voucher. Now, the voucher program is declared constitutional, and voucher advocates are excited about the prospect of setting up more voucher programs across the country.

Is this a good idea? In evaluating education voucher programs, researchers at the National Center for the Study of Privatization (NCSPE) at Teachers College ask four questions: Do vouchers offer freedom of choice? Are they efficient? Are they fair? Do they impair or enhance social cohesion? These questions all need to be answered, and there are many responses to each one. Here's how the Supreme Court responded. (See the NCSPE website, www.ncspe.org, for other approaches).

The majority opinion clearly emphasized freedom of choice; vouchers-along with community schools and magnet schools-offer "true private" and "genuine" freedom of choice. Such choices are an important part of a "general and multifaceted undertaking by the State." In fact, choice trumps our question about efficiency: as Justice O'Connor wrote: "For nonreligious schools to qualify as genuine options for parents, they need not be superior to religious schools in every respect. They need only be adequate substitutes for religious schools in the eyes of parents." It's not necessary to second-guess the suitability of the choices that parents make; they will make the best choice, even if an analysis of test scores may suggest otherwise.

On the question of fairness, Justice Thomas wrote tellingly of the need for more options in the inner cities for low-income families. As "failing urban public schools disproportionately affect minority children," it is the case that "many blacks now support school choice programs because they provide the greatest educational opportunities for their children in struggling communities." Vouchers as 'opportunities for struggling communities' may be the tipping factor that encourages their wider adoption.

But last is not least: Do vouchers impair or enhance social cohesion? In dissenting opinions, Justices Breyer and Stevens cautioned of the risk "that publicly financed voucher programs pose in terms of religiously based social conflict" and of their potential to "weaken our foundation of democracy." These risks should make reformers wary. These were the Supreme Court's answers to our four questions, and undoubtedly, they will please voucher advocates.

The ruling stresses the advantages of choice and the fairness of education vouchers over possible losses in social cohesion. It also corresponds well with advocates' new, focused agenda: voucher programs for low-income families in inner-cities. And, it clarifies a debate where beforehand uncertainty had scared away supporters.

But, although voucher advocates may be bullish, the Supreme Court only states what is permissible in law. Education reform needs also to be desirable in practice. Are vouchers desirable and practical? Let's take New York City as our case study.

At first blush, New York City looks ripe for a voucher program. What about more freedom of choice? There would be plenty of private schools to select and New Yorkers have reasonable commutes to multiple school sites. Productive efficiency? The public school system is much-criticized; mandates for extra financing are stuck in the courts; and the 'education mayor' might now have sufficient discretion and suasion to effect quick change. Equity? In recent field trials in New York City, vouchers generated at best modest gains; but the largest gains were for those with the fewest education opportunities in the current system.

But there are plenty of obstacles. Community groups and teachers still have concerns-they successfully opposed privatization maneuvers last year. Public school parents remain to be convinced-a sizeable proportion of recipients do not use their vouchers. Current private school families may be eligible, claiming vouchers for schools they would have attended anyway. Private schools may be reluctant participants-unwilling to accept government regulations that may accompany voucher students or to accept students who are insufficiently devout.

So, the Mayor would be in charge of an education system that seeks to provide a common experience for democracy and social cohesion for the children of immigrants, but where fulfillment of this responsibility is left to schools whose attractions to parents may be based upon religion, ethnicity, and political values. Can a New York mayor turn his back on these traditional concerns, or would he push for testing and curriculum standards among private schools taking vouchers? For an administration with financial difficulties, voucher programs may look too expensive to implement-extra costs may arise with more record-keeping, for instance. And, what should the value of the voucher be? The Cleveland voucher was worth $2,250, a sum unlikely to entice many of Manhattan's private schools. But a value any higher would reduce the program's efficiency and so its attractiveness.

The Supreme Court ruling does nothing to address these obstacles. For, ultimately, there are no quick fixes in America's schools, and there are no easy choices. In these two respects, then, education vouchers fit right in. Please visit the National Center for the Study of Privitization in Education for more information at www.ncspe.org.previous page