Suburbs need not fear school vouchers

Wealthier districts worry about lower test scores and home prices.

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The tight connection between test scores and home prices that was reported by the recent Trinity College study raises fresh doubts about the ability of an open educational marketplace to improve schooling for all children. Although the study focused only on West Hartford, Conn., its conclusions apply to other blue-ribbon communities across the country.

When parents spend a king's ransom to buy a house, they understandably want to protect what is undoubtedly for most the biggest investment of their lives. Unfettered school choice poses a direct threat by allowing children from urban schools to enroll in suburban schools at the expense of local taxpayers. Too many of these outsiders bring huge deficits in socialization, motivation, and intellectual development through no fault of their own, which lower test scores and, in turn, house prices. Faced with that possibility, suburbanites have fought back, with remarkable success.

It's more than mere coincidence that efforts in the past to desegregate public schools abruptly ended at precisely the same time that suburban schools were imminently threatened.

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In 1974, the US Supreme Court in Milliken v. Bradley prohibited busing between urban and suburban school districts, except for unusual cases that met impossibly high standards. The effect of this decision for all practical purposes was to reserve seats in suburban schools exclusively for neighborhood children.

In light of the Milliken decision, efforts to integrate schools largely shifted to intradistrict school choice. This meant that parents were able to choose schools within a district, but they could not cross district lines. States that still had interdistrict plans almost always required schools to enroll out-of-district children only when space was available. If this were not enough of a barrier, funds were not provided for transportation, which for poor parents seeking escape from failing schools has always been a significant disincentive.

Meanwhile, publicly funded voucher programs – in Milwaukee, Cleveland, and elsewhere – have promised more than they've delivered because of the limitations on the way they may be used.

That's why Utah is being watched closely. In February, it passed into law the nation's first universal statewide voucher program. When it goes into effect in the fall, it will offer tuition vouchers from $500 to $3,000 annually, based on family income, to any child who wants to attend a private school. The program is estimated to pay out a total of $9.3 million to about 3,000 students in the first year. But because some of the money will undoubtedly be used at religious schools, in addition to private schools, legal challenges are expected under the provision of the Utah Constitution prohibiting support of any religious school.

Even if the law is upheld, however, the tradition of neighborhood schools will die hard, particularly when test scores are closely tied to house prices. Courts have generally ruled that states must provide more money for poorer districts, but have allowed wealthier ones to devote locally raised funds to local schools.

Emboldened by their ability to prevail in the courts, suburbanites aren't likely to relinquish their hold on maintaining local schools for themselves. They've worked too hard and too long to establish residency in communities where existing schools have garnered well-deserved reputations for educational quality. After all, they have as much of a right for their children to benefit from top-flight schools as parents from the inner cities do for their children.

Yet suburban parents' fears are exaggerated. Inner-city parents who take advantage of the opportunity to enroll their children in schools outside their neighborhood send an important signal about their involvement in their children's education. And it's that kind of strong, parental commitment, studies show, that is a powerful predictor of future academic performance. So, in the end, students who take advantage of vouchers are highly likely to be a proud asset, rather than a menacing liability in their adopted districts.

Walt Gardner taught for 28 years in the Los Angeles Unified School District and was a lecturer in the UCLA Graduate School of Education.

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