School vouchers leave too many children behind

Choice is good, but some parents are busy worrying about food and shelter.

There's another side to the school voucher story that needs to be told if we ever expect to create educational equity in this country. It has to do with the disconnect between what we say we want for children and what we're willing to settle for.

Teachers have long known that parental involvement is one of the most powerful factors in student achievement. When parents become partners with teachers in the educational process, the effects are reflected in superior test scores and in on-time graduation rates.

Yet too many children come from households where their parents are disengaged from their schooling. This is particularly the case in inner cities because education takes a back seat to concern about food, clothing, and shelter. As a result, parents fail to respond to repeated requests from teachers for conferences and are conspicuously absent from open house teacher-parent meetings.

It's not surprising, therefore, that these same parents are precisely the ones who do not take advantage of the opportunity afforded them through the use of vouchers to get a better education for their children. There is nothing magical about vouchers that can induce them to participate, no matter how hard schools publicize choice.

At present, the focus is on Washington D.C., where vouchers take the form of the Opportunity Scholarship Program. Established in 2004, it provides about 1,700 students in K-12 with up to $7,500 annually to cover tuition, fees, and transportation to attend private school. To date, about 90 percent of participants have been African-American and an additional 9 percent Hispanic, according to the US Department of Education.

But unless Congress reauthorizes the program and the District of Columbia approves, it will expire at the end of the next school year (the Senate just passed a $410 billion spending bill that provides no specific funding for vouchers). This possibility has triggered a rash of editorials and op-eds lamenting the double standard that permits lawmakers to choose private and parochial schools for their children but prevents poor parents from doing the same for their own.

It's easy to understand the anger. But before writing off opposition to vouchers solely as an attempt by the haves to deny the have nots the same opportunity, we need to take a closer look.

Let's put aside studies that call into question the beneficial effect of vouchers on test scores when similar groups of students are compared, and look instead at the matter of parental satisfaction. While it's true parents who have chosen to participate are so pleased with the results for their children that demand exceeds supply, little is said about parents who have not exercised their option, and the effect it has had on their children.

What emerges is a disheartening picture.

Look at Milwaukee, home to the largest and oldest voucher program in the country: Without anyone in their corner, children who remain in regular high schools have a graduation rate well below that in voucher high schools, according to a study by School Choice Wisconsin. This metric is widely considered the most sensitive indicator of school success.

If voucher supporters believe these children constitute the unavoidable price that must be paid in the service of the principle of choice, then they cannot demand at the same time that all children achieve meaningful proficiency.

That's why vouchers are opposed by many groups. They believe in the right of parents to send their children to any school they want, but they also recognize that not all children will be the beneficiaries of this policy. Instead, they want to improve all neighborhood public schools to make vouchers unnecessary, except in rare instances.

It's this belief that explains why millions of voters in 26 statewide referendums to date have rejected vouchers or their variants by an average of 2-to-1. It's also a repudiation of Milton Friedman's seemingly promising solution to educational inequity in 1955.

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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