How one national school voucher program fared

 

Correction: An earlier version said that Chile had the longest-running voucher system in the world. It is one of the longest running.

Though Gov. Mitt Romney and President Obama agree on some education issues, there are important differences, including the extent of federal involvement in local school issues and voucher programs. Romney supports the use of tax money to pay for tuition at private schools, including religious schools, while President Obama opposes vouchers, saying that public dollars should be used to improve public schools. Here is a new look at the world’s longest-running and most heavily researched voucher program, in Chile, written by Michael Pons, a Colorado based policy analyst who spent 25 years reading voucher studies.

By Michael Pons

Will a federal role in funding, standards and accountability continue over the next four years, or will the United States embrace a free-market approach?  The presidential candidates’ education proposals are as sharp a contrast as there could be.

President Barack Obama would build on a framework of standards and accountability built up through the past three administrations.  Gov. Mitt Romney would convert to vouchers all federal aid to disadvantaged students and students with disabilities.  First proposed during the Reagan administration’s second term, a national voucher experiment has been a non-starter for almost 30 years.

Romney has said he would not cut education spending, but his plan would mean a loss to students in America’s public schools of as much as $26 billion.

President Reagan’s national voucher experiment was tabled for a reason.  The public does not support vouchers, and there is ample evidence that vouchers have failed to achieve any of the goals its advocates claim.  Twenty years of experience in Milwaukee – and 30 years experience in Chile – demonstrate conclusively that economist Milton Friedman’s vouchers will never live up to the promise.   

A flurry of pro-voucher reports and studies all follow the same pattern.  They claim vouchers’ success, but they include so many exceptions, caveats and contradictory findings as to be wholly useless as a guide for setting policy.

 Some students with vouchers do better and some do worse than comparable students in public schools, studies show.  Some students – and some types of students – do better in some subjects at different grades in different schools, other studies show.  How can one seriously argue vouchers work if students who use them do better in one subject in one grade in public school and another subject in another grade at private school? 

 No matter what the findings are, every report concludes with a statement that goes like this: “Vouchers have to work because they should work.  It’s such an elegant theory.”

 It is hard to come up with another education change that has been so well examined – and had such a perfect laboratory – as vouchers have had in Chile.

 Chile represents the purest example of a Friedman-designed education voucher system in the world.  In 1980, Friedman created and helped implement a system to try out the education voucher theory he first proposed in 1955.

 The Chilean education reform was marked by two major changes.  First, authority for public schools was transferred from the federal to municipal government.  Second, every student was provided a voucher to present to a public or private school.   

 Enrollment changes were stark.  Private school enrollment rose from 12 percent in 1980 to 33 percent in 1985.  Today, more than one-half of all Chilean students attend private schools.

 Funding cuts were also sharp.  Funding went from 5.4 percent of GDP in 1980 to 3.7 percent by  1990.  Today, it has been somewhat restored to 4.4 percent of GDP. 

 Voucher proponents like to point out that student achievement in Chile is higher on international tests than other Latin American nations, but it ranks only slightly higher than Mexico and Uruguay, and ranks about where other nations are that have a comparable level of investment, such as Russia and Bulgaria.

 And yet, the student achievement gap in Chile, and the resulting economic divide, is growing. 

Three-fourths of the public school enrollment in Chile are students from the lower 40 percent in family income.  Only 10 percent of disadvantaged students use vouchers to attend private schools.  Ninety percent of the private school students come from the top 60 percent. 

The opportunities, where they have existed, have been for the benefit of upper-middle income families.  Students in private schools, especially in those that charge fees above the voucher amount, are doing pretty well.  Students in public schools struggle amid a host of challenges.  Budget cuts have led to overall decline in quality.  Disadvantaged students and students with disabilities – the students Romney’s plan is said to help – are vastly overrepresented in the public schools, in large part because public schools are the last resort for students turned away because of income, ability or discipline issues.   

 The education marketplace has grown in Chile, as Friedman predicted, but quality is not the only factor people take into consideration.  For parents, price and proximity also matter.  For private schools, the emphasis is on serving students that are cheapest to educate, not tailoring different programs to the unique needs of students.

 Many parents are driven to seek any alternative, even if the alternative is sometimes worse.  Disadvantaged students are more likely to be served in franchise private schools rather than independent or religious private schools.  The frustration of students, teachers and parents is at a breaking point.

 Since 2006, Chilean students, teachers, and parents have been engaged in the Penguin Revolution, a reference to school uniforms.  They are organizing, agitating and demonstrating for something many Americans take for granted – free public schools.

 They call for an end to profiteering in education.  They want a greater federal role in funding and in setting and enforcing consistent standards.  They want the government to built more colleges to meet the growing demand. 

 The campaign enjoys broad popular support.  As many as 1 million Chileans, out of a national population of 17 million, have been involved in demonstrations on a single day.  Hundreds of thousands of public education advocates have held demonstrations over the past six years, as recently as August.  Polls show public support for their efforts ranging from two-thirds to three-fourths.

 The government has been adamant in opposition.  The Chilean education minister recently called a return to free public education “negative and regressive.”  He, too, contends the issue is about parental choice, even as parents are demanding restoration of public education.

 If advocates listened, rather than told parents what they want, they would get a different story.

 Voucher advocates have invested millions of dollars in dozens of studies, hundreds of conferences.  And yet, voucher advocate Terry Moe famously moaned in 2001 that, despite their best efforts, Americans still see value in America’s public schools.

 School vouchers have been rejected every time they have been on the ballot.  In 2007, Utahns for Public Schools bucked the entire state political establishment and won.

 It was not supposed to be this way.  The 2002 U.S. Supreme Court decision in Zelman v. Simmons-Harris that green lighted the Cleveland voucher experiment was supposed to open the doors to new voucher experiments.  And yet, nothing much happened until last year when Indiana and Louisiana enacted broad, statewide voucher experiments.

 The Louisiana experiment affects as many as 55 percent of all students and three-fourths of all school districts.  Consistent with the Friedman theory, the Louisiana plan relies on the marketplace for accountability.   But is it fair to call something an experiment when one knows what the outcome will be?  After a period of widespread financial and educational malfeasance – as was present in Milwaukee and Cleveland – one can expect Indiana and Louisiana to reconsider whether “voting with one’s feet” is as effective as standards and accountability.

 When it comes to education reform, Americans should get back to the basics.  Better teachers, smaller classes, strong after-school and summer programs have all been demonstrated to improve student achievement.  Perhaps in the re-authorization of No Child Left Behind, someone could insert a clause that states that education reforms must be scientifically based.

 Then vouchers could tossed on the pile with new math, open classrooms and other education reforms that seemed like a good idea at the time.

Valerie Strauss covers education and runs The Answer Sheet blog.
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Valerie Strauss · October 25, 2012