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Will vouchers work?

Putting aside this issue of whether vouchers are needed, or whether they are constitutional, we propose here to answer a third question: Do voucher systems improve education?

Voucher proponents argue that market forces under the system will force the public schools to compete against private schools, which will improve the level of education. In fact, there is little if any evidence that such competition will occur or that such competition will improve the quality of schools. Consider the following:

[Note: In the past year one team of educational researches has concluded that the scores of students participating in the Milwaukee choice program did improve relative to students that did not enroll in the program (A Critique of "The Effectiveness of School Choice in Milwaukee: A Secondary Analysis of Data From the Program's Evaluation, Jay Greene, Paul Peterson and Jiangtao Du). This study has been criticized on a number of substantive grounds. In particular, the effect reported in the study disappears when relevant background variables are controled, many of its results are statistically insignificant, and the authors sampled an inadequate number of students. This link will take you a collection of hypertext material on the Green, Peterson, and Du study housed at the American Federation of Teachers website. Note especially the critiques authored by the AFT, and noted educational researchers John Witte and Peter Cookson. We think these critiques effectively destroy the study's conclusions.]

Nor would voucher program be fair to the poor, the disadvantaged, the poor student, or the "undesirables." Under voucher programs private schools are allowed to choose their own students. The evidence is overwhelming that private schools screen for the best students, and for students that "fit the mold" of the student body they want to recruit. Low achieving students (who are more likely to be poor and disadvantaged) have little chance of being accepted at private schools that want academically superior student bodies. Many parents transfer their children to private schools to escape discipline problems in the public schools; how likely is it that private schools will admit students that are perceived to be discipline problems? Many religious private schools consciously attempt to maintain a sectarian social character; parents that are not of the favored religion of the school will not stand the same chance of gaining admittance as parents of the favored religion.

Our point, in other words, is that a good deal of the "choice" under voucher systems is the school's, not the parent's. Under a voucher system no parent is assured of getting into the school they desire. On the contrary, poor students are likely to be excluded from schools in which they desire to enroll. The effect of vouchers, in other words, is to force some parents to pay for the educations of children at school at which they have no hope of enrolling. Indeed, in the Milwaukee experiment, the best non-sectarian schools chose not to participate in the program; low-income students simply did not interest them. In a full scale voucher program these differences would surely persist, which will magnify, not decrease, current discrepancies between social classes.

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