Public school vouchers: not a good idea

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PUBLIC school vouchers will receive increasing notice over the next few months as a promising way to improve elementary and secondary education in the United States. This attention will come at a time when proponents of tuition tax credits for private schools concede little chance for their proposals to pass Congress. Public school vouchers are viewed as more acceptable on Capitol Hill by advocates of ``family choice'' in schooling. As a political strategy to break the nation's commitment to traditional public school finance, the voucher on the surface looks promising. It doesn't divert public funds to private schools, and what could be more democratic than family choice? But proponents vastly oversimplify the funneling of dollars to educate individual students, and they ignore the erosion of public control over schools under a voucher system.

Although special-education students are more expensive to educate than ``regular'' students -- a special formula would be necessary under a voucher system to pay this expense -- there also is a range of costs of regular students, which few people understand. If the average cost of schooling at Hometown High School is $3,000 a year, the assumption is made that every family would qualify for a $3,000 voucher per student. But the actual expense of educating a ``regular'' student might range from $2,200 to $4,000 or more. No school spends close to the same amount on each student; all schools subsidize the education of some students. A subsidized student cannot buy the education he currently receives at another school with a $3,000 voucher. If he moves, he gets fewer resources. If he stays and the ``inexpensive'' students move with their $3,000 vouchers, then he also has fewer resources back at the home school. It's an interesting dilemma for a nation committed to promoting the general welfare by educating all students to their potential.

Some of these expensive students are enrolled in remedial courses with class sizes of 15 students. Others are in technological or vocational classes with expensive equipment: The space to be heated, lighted, and cleaned may be three times that of a history classroom. They are also students in slower classes, where extra assistance is needed. Also, they are students who use counseling or psychological services frequently. Twenty percent of the students use 80 percent of a counselor's time.

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How do we assign a voucher that fairly matches the actual cost of the student's education? Do we price out the schooling of each student and give $3,600 to one family and $2,600 to another? This would be absurd. So would be the alternative of allocating the same amount of dollars for each student. All schools would recruit the college-bound students with good grades, because they are the easiest and the least expensive to educate.

The most rational financial system is one that takes the sum of resources available for schools in a community and directs them in the fairest way possible to all the students in that community. The traditional approach to school finance is the most flexible, the least bureaucratic, and the most beneficial in the long run. Services to individual students flow from the sum of resources available for all students.

A second deficiency of public school vouchers is that community control of school policy would be eroded. Under a voucher plan, parents would gain power, since the vouchers would become theirs to spend. The general citizenry, however, would become disenfranchised, because policy would be determined by private expenditure. It would be the ultimate example of private consumerism at public expense. But the public possesses a vital interest in its basic economic resource, the educated human mind. The public must maintain this interest.

Finally, the red flag of the Alum Rock School voucher experiment should be raised. In the late 1970s, under an $8 million federal grant, the Alum Rock School District, near San Jose, Calif., launched a five-year public school voucher plan that offered parents a choice of 54 programs. The Rand Corporation evaluated the experiment and concluded: (1) Student and parent interest in transferring to another school was very low after the initial year, despite free transportation; (2) the experiment made no significant difference in student attitudes or achievements; (3) community interest was insufficient to sustain the voucher system after federal funds were withdrawn.

Public school vouchers appeal at first glance. But if the public's general interest in developing brain power for the future growth of the nation is legitimate, along with a parent's particular interest in a child, then the power to make educational policy must be shared. And if we want a new engine to improve schooling, let us first avoid installing an old and defective part.

Scott D. Thomson is executive director of the National Association of Secondary School Principals.

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