Design is key when it comes to vouchers...

Interview / Paul Peterson

It's very clear where Paul Peterson stands on the question of allowing parents to apply their share of public-education funds to private-school tuition.

"Over the course of 30 years, the amount of education funding in this country has increased by 2 to 3 percent annually nationwide, and [standardized test] scores remain flat," says Professor Peterson, who directs the Program on Education Policy and Governance at Harvard University in Cambridge, Mass.

His solution: "Give parents choice."

In the intensifying debate over school vouchers, Peterson has emerged as a leading academic figure and a serious proponent of vouchers to boost urban education.

According to Peterson, 2001 will be a good year for voucher supporters. A Republican administration in the White House, he says, "will push vouchers forward." He also expects that the judicial system will ultimately give a green light to vouchers. He predicts the US Supreme Court will hear a case on vouchers sometime in 2001 and will rule that vouchers do not violate the Constitution. (For other views, see articles below and on page 12.)

Peterson does not see any kind of a barrier in arguments that vouchers going to parochial schools violate the constitutional separation of church and state. In higher education, he points out, Pell grants have long been offered to colleges with religious affiliations.

"It's perfectly constitutional," he insists. And, he adds, "The weight of opinion in the courts right now is in favor [of vouchers]."

Cases have been brought against several voucher programs, including the one in Milwaukee, which was allowed to stand after the US Supreme Court refused to hear an appeal. Peterson believes that the case just decided in Cleveland, which rejected vouchers as unconstitutional, will be the one to make it to the Supreme Court.

Peterson also argues that enough bipartisan support for vouchers exists in Congress to push the issue ahead.

"It's conceivable to me that you could have a massive voucher experiment, and Washington, D.C., will be the perfect place for it," he speculates. "Congress has authority over the D.C. schools. I expect it to happen in Congress this [next] year."

But Peterson says that in a sense, the current debates over vouchers ignore the most important question. "It's not whether you have vouchers," he says. "It's how you design them." He declines, however, to offer his own ideas on doing so. "I think we should try a variety of ways and see what works."

Despite his support for the voucher movement, Peterson predicts its course will be slow - and he argues that that's a good thing. "Voucher proponents want to do something massive, and that concerns me," he says. "It's better that we crawl along."

Too, he predicts, not all parents will want vouchers. "Five percent of families will want them, not 50 percent," he says. Even if larger numbers of parents did hope to remove their children from public schools, the resources to do so don't currently exist.

"You've got to create more schools," he says. "It's not like you wave a flag and have a new educational system."

But when it comes to the urgency of the question, again, Peterson has no doubts. The inadequate quality of education offered by US inner-city schools "is the biggest civil rights question of our era," Peterson says. Simply tinkering with the public school system will not suffice. "The problems are much more deeply entrenched," he says. "How do you expect new governance systems to serve people more effectively?"

Peterson recently headed up a study suggesting that vouchers have boosted the achievement levels of African-American students who used them to switch from public to private schools.

The effort proved controversial. It flew in the face of conclusions drawn by some other researchers studying the same questions, and it even created a mini-media storm when one of the analysts who had worked on it publicly questioned its conclusions.

But Peterson is sticking to his guns. In addition to higher test scores, he says the African-American parents and students he surveyed over the course of the study - particularly those in urban areas - told him repeatedly that they perceived real benefits in shifting from public to private schools.

Peterson says they spoke of "less fighting, less property destruction, less racial conflict, more homework, classes that are a little smaller, schools that are a little smaller, more communication with parents, and overall a much higher level of satisfaction."

The bottom line, Peterson says, is "if you're black, to move from public to private school has a big impact."

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