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School Vouchers–Short Run Good, Long Run Disaster

Opinion Editorial
January 25, 2000

By Linda Gorman

The pitiful state of K-12 public education presents one of public policy’s cruelest dilemmas. Government schools fail many of those forced to attend. Those harmed the most are typically those who most desperately need the leg up that education provides. Plagued by adult neglect or impoverished circumstances, they have no other resource.

More money for public schools is not the answer. The United States has increased inflation-adjusted per pupil spending at a rate of 3.5% per year for the last 100 years. Between 1960 and 1991, the period of most rapid spending growth, pupil-teacher ratios were reduced, and teacher credentials and experience were improved. Ratios fell from 25.6 in 1960-61 to 17.3 in 1990-91, the percentage of teachers with master’s degrees rose from 23 to 52, and median teacher experience rose from 11 years to 15 years.[1] Despite huge increases in per capita spending, University of Rochester economist Eric Hanushek found that student achievement “at best stayed constant, and it may have fallen.”[2]

The Kansas City, Missouri, experiment to improve achievement by providing a school district with limitless funds has ended in failure. In 1985, federal judge Russell Clark took control of the Kansas City’s school district. Outraged at its condition, he gave educators carte blanche to design a school system that included everything that might possibly improve student achievement. Missouri was ordered to pay for everything on the wish list. Teacher pay was raised 40% to an average of $37,000 for a 180-day year. Class sizes were cut and teacher workload slashed, some teachers taught three classes per day. Transportation was provided. Course offerings and school facilities were palatial. In all, $2 billion was spent over 12 years.[3]

No improvement occurred. Parochial schools operating on a shoestring continued to do a better job serving a similar population.

American public education, like many government systems, has historically concerned itself with inputs. It has paid little or no attention to effective performance measures. Next to nothing is known about whether different incentive structures would improve actual student achievement or about what forms those incentives might take. At present, more money to failed schools simply reproduces their lousy results on a larger scale.

In Hanushek’s view, “this lack of knowledge about performance systems calls for a broad program of experimentation and evaluation.” Advocates of school vouchers agree. They believe that parents are the best evaluators of the education their child receives, and that government should shift educational funding from direct grants to school administrators to vouchers controlled by parents.

Though voucher programs would clearly have immediate benefits for the millions of children allowed to attend the school of their parents’ choice, in the long run they will harm millions more by facilitating the destruction of private education. Government control inevitably follows government money. It will turn private schools into clones of public ones. World Bank economist Estelle James examined public policies toward private education in 35 countries. She concluded that “heavy controls invariably accompany subsidies, particularly over teacher salaries and qualifications, price and other entrance criteria.”[4]

In France, Germany, and Britain, government has funded private education for years. In Choice of Schools in Six Nations, Boston University education professor Charles L. Glenn found that “Catholic or Protestant schools in each of the nations studied have increasingly been assimilated to the assumptions and guiding values of public schooling[it is difficult] for a private school playing by public rules, to maintain its distance from the common assumptions and habits of the predominant system.”[5]

American higher education has already been homogenized. In 1995, governments at all levels provided $73 billion in direct funding to higher education, about 38% of total revenues. An additional $7 billion was spent on grants funneled through students. A college with even one student receiving aid from the Department of Education, faces over 7,000 Department of Education regulations controlling everything from hiring to the number of men who may participate in college athletic programs. Plans are now afoot to control the curriculum itself, beginning with regulations that would ultimately result in quotas on female enrollment in Schools of Engineering.

The regulatory burden is so heavy that President Clinton’s 1988 National Commission on the Cost of Higher Education concluded that deregulating higher education would significantly cut costs.[6]

What are the alternatives to vouchers? Tax cuts and refundable tax credits for people with school age children are one option. Expanding the private scholarship funds already in existence is clearly another. Millions of parents from all income levels already educate their own children without the aid of the state. Vouchers would turn those parents into government dependents. We should concentrate instead on preserving their options, along with the options of the millions of others who will eventually seek to liberate themselves from the pernicious effects of public schooling.

[1] Data from Eric A. Hanushek. Fall 1996. “Measuring Investment in Education,” The Journal of Economic Perspectives, 10, 4, pp. 9-30.
[2] Eric A. Hanushek. Fall 1996. “Measuring Investment in Education,” The Journal of Economic Perspectives, 10, 4. P. 13. A similar discussion by the same author is available on the web. “Improving School Performance While Controlling Costs.” The Panel on the Economics of Education Reform. The panel met from 1990-94. Its results were published by the Brookings Institution in October, 1994. The web version of the paper as of 18 January 2000 may be found at http://nces.ed.gov/pubs/96344han.html, p. 4.
[3] Paul Ciotti. March 16, 1998. Money and School Performance: Lessons from the Kansas City Desegregation Experiment. Washington, DC; The Cato Institute.
[4] Estelle James. 1991. “Public Policies toward Private Education: An International Comparison,” International Journal of Educational Research 15, 5, p. 374. Quoted in Joseph L. Bast, David Harmer, and Douglas Dewey. March 12, 1997. Vouchers and Educational Freedom: A Debate. Cato Policy Analysis No. 269. The Cato Institute, p. 23,. web version, http://ww.cato.org/pubs/pas/pa-269.html , as of 19 January 2000.
[5] Quoted in Joseph L. Bast, David Harmer, and Douglas Dewey. March 12, 1997. Vouchers and Educational Freedom: A Debate. Cato Policy Analysis No. 269. The Cato Institute, p. 22,. web version, http://ww.cato.org/pubs/pas/pa-269.html , as of 19 January 2000.
[6] Report of the National Commission on the Cost of Higher Education. January 1998. Straight Talk About College Costs and Prices. Version cited is available on the web at http://www/nyu.edu/classes/jepsen/costreport.html.

Linda Gorman is a Senior Fellow with the Independence Institute, a free-market think tank in Golden, Colorado, https://i2i.org. This article originally appeared in the Colorado Daily (Boulder), for which Linda Gorman is a regular columnist.

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