| Vouchers Fail to Raise Test Scores By Rene Sanchez |
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, April 8, 1998; Page A7 A new evaluation of one of the nation's few school voucher programs has found that students using the tuition stipends to pay for private education are not achieving better test scores than similar students who are still in public schools.
The two-year-old Cleveland program gives 3,000 needy students publicly funded scholarships worth as much as $2,250 to attend private schools. Advocates have touted the idea, which is one of the most divisive education issues in the country, as a way to give better learning opportunities to children trapped in failing public schools.
But in a new report commissioned by the state of Ohio, researchers contend that the promise of Cleveland's voucher experiment so far has not been fulfilled. They found "no significant differences" in achievement in either reading, math or science between students using vouchers and a comparable sample from Cleveland's public schools. Both groups of students were assessed near the end of the voucher program's first year.
And in a separate measure of the program's performance, a new audit is raising questions about how some of its funds are being spent. Students with vouchers, for example, have spent a total of about $1.4 million in state money to take taxicabs to class, rather than the school buses they would ride if they were part of Cleveland's public school system.
Opponents of vouchers said that both findings show how flawed the voucher idea is. "It's a significant early signal that this is not a magic bullet by any means for educating poor children," said Sandra Feldman, president of the American Federation of Teachers.
Only one other city, Milwaukee, allows students to use vouchers, but Republican leaders in Congress have the idea atop their education agenda. Arguing that public schools would benefit from competition and that poor parents deserve more educational choices for their children, they are proposing to use federal money to create similar voucher programs for students in the District and several dozen other cities.
President Clinton adamantly opposes that plan. He and other voucher opponents say the idea would drain money and civic support from the public schools that need it most. Critics also contend that letting students use vouchers for religious schools, as both Cleveland and Milwaukee want to do, is unconstitutional.
The new report on Cleveland's program focuses only on the question of academic achievement. Those who support vouchers cautioned against drawing too much from its conclusions. They said judging the academic work of students will take more time.
"We're still very confident that over the long term, these students will show more gains in their academic scores," said Tom Needle, the education adviser to Ohio Gov. George V. Voinovich (R), who pushed for the voucher plan. "It's not surprising to see these findings at the very beginning of a program."
Needle also said that a privately funded study of Cleveland's program conducted last year by a Harvard University professor showed that students using vouchers are making more academic strides. It also reported great enthusiasm for the program among their parents.
In the latest evaluation, researchers at Indiana University compared the achievement of 94 students using vouchers with 494 students still enrolled in Cleveland public schools. Both groups were tested before the voucher program began and near the end of its first year. Their scores in every subject tested were roughly the same. Both groups were third-graders with virtually the same backgrounds: Nearly all of them were African American or Hispanic children living in poverty and with only one parent at home.
As has been the case in every attempt to assess Milwaukee's voucher program, the methodology that researchers have used in Cleveland is provoking disputes.
But the audit, which suggested that oversight of some voucher funds has been lax, already is prompting changes. The number of taxicabs that students are using, Needle said, has been cut by more than two-thirds. Also, the next group of students who receive vouchers and lack private means of transportation will have to select private schools in walking distance from their homes, or ones that are near city bus routes.
"Their choice of schools will have to be limited somewhat," he said.