What Vouchers Can And Can't Solve

Sometimes a single act of philanthropy can change the political landscape. Ted Forstmann, chairman of Gulfstream Aerospace Corp. and founder of the Wall Street investment firm of Forstmann Little & Co., has just offered private vouchers to 40,000 poor kids, and 1.2 million parents throughout America raised their hands--168,000 in New York alone. Over 33% of those eligible applied in Washington, D.C., 26% in Chicago, and 18% in Los Angeles. Given the chance, a vast number of parents expressed deep dissatisfaction with their children's public education and welcomed a choice--even though they would have to match the scholarship money from their own meager incomes. Forstmann, a wealthy 59-year-old graduate of the Phillips Academy, has sparked a galvanizing event in the history of U.S. education.

Pressure to use public as well as private money to fund vouchers is certain to follow. Already, Governor Jeb Bush is proposing vouchers for children in failing Florida schools. But the issue of vouchers is intensely emotional, and before passions flare, it is important to understand the roles that vouchers can--and cannot--play in the overall educational system. Myths abound, problems are misunderstood, and solutions are often tinged with ideological and sectarian agendas.


Myth No. 1: Americans are terribly unhappy with their public schools. Not so. Polls show that Americans living in the suburbs (most of the population) like their local schools and think they're doing a good job. This is why voucher initiatives are consistently voted down across the country. It is inner-city parents who are discontented. And why not? They are too poor to move to the suburbs or send their kids to better private schools. They have no choices.

Myth No. 2: Public education has sharply deteriorated. Not so. Numbers from the National Center for Education Statistics show that the decline evidenced in the '80s in national average scores for science, math, reading, and writing has been reversed in the '90s. Scores are back to their levels of the early '70s. At the same time, the high school dropout rate has fallen dramatically, and nearly two-thirds of all graduates go on to take college courses, a greater percentage than in Europe or Asia. The same educational system that was blamed for the economy's poor performance last decade is fueling the hot New Economy. The real problem lies below the national averages and is limited to poor, inner-city schools and rural Southern schools. The big, troubled public school systems of New York (the country's largest), Chicago, Miami, and Los Angeles constitute a substantial part of the problem.

Myth No. 3: Vouchers can solve all the inner-city schools' problems. Not so again. The crisis in education is as much a social and economic problem as it is a teaching problem. Children from unstable homes who go to school hungry and angry often aren't prepared to learn. If no one at home works, there may not be any sense of punctuality. If no one reads, there may not be any familiarity with books and the quiet discipline that goes with reading. Teachers can't be faulted for these problems. The answer lies in the economic realm. Policies that promote growth, low unemployment, and decent-paying jobs are both pro-family and pro-education.

Myth No. 4: Private schools are the answer. Sometimes. Some 90% of the nation's 26,000 private schools claim a religious identity. In the inner city, nearly all are Catholic. They offer safety, discipline, and educational basics. But in Wisconsin and Florida, public funds spent for vouchers must provide for children opting out of religious classes. Can Catholic schools accept this? Or would it undermine their own value system? In addition, private schools often refuse to admit problem students and eject those who cause trouble. They also don't admit kids with special educational needs. Yet more than half the children in many New York City grade schools are in special-ed classes. What happens to them? In the end, public schools must be reformed, not replaced.


There is an understandable groundswell of popular support for experimenting with vouchers. In spite of 20 years of a national school-improvement movement, many inner-city schools remain dangerous places that don't educate. Parents send their kids to them because they have no choice. That must end. Charter schools that are genuinely independent of heavy-handed bureaucratic and political influence can provide choice and competition within the public school system. They should be dramatically expanded. And it is time to try vouchers as well. Private vouchers can help. Nathan Myhrvold, chief technology officer for Microsoft; Stanley Druckenmiller, chief investment strategist for George Soros; Peter Lynch, vice-chairman of Fidelity mutual funds; and many others joined Forstmann. The rest of the American business community should get involved in educational reform, too.

Publicly funded vouchers are the next step. Arthur Levine, president of Columbia University's Teachers College and a lifelong advocate of public education, believes the situation is so dire that a rescue operation is needed to reclaim the lives of America's most disadvantaged children. He proposes trying a limited voucher program for the poor, urban children attending the bottom 10% of public schools. Parents would be reimbursed an amount equal to the average cost per student (about $6,500 nationally) to permit them to attend a wide range of nonsectarian private schools, such as those run by the Edison Project, public schools in the suburbs, or parochial schools.

It's a good, limited proposal that bores in on the real problem in American education. Poor kids would get a way out of the worst inner-city schools. And it might even increase competition, forcing school districts to close old, decrepit buildings and provide safe, quality education. The U.S. simply can't afford to sacrifice another generation of poor children.

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