A reality check on school vouchers

March 15, 1996|By Clarence Page

WASHINGTON -- President Clinton says he will veto a Republican-backed bill that would provide financial vouchers to District of Columbia parents who want to send their children to private schools.

The decision undoubtedly will haunt him this election year. After all, his daughter is enrolled in Washington's prestigious Sidwell Friends Academy. But, if the president is looking for reasons to be skeptical about the virtue of these vouchers, he need look no further than that great voucher laboratory, Milwaukee.

More than five years have passed since Milwaukee adopted the nation's first voucher plan at the urging of Wisconsin's Republican Gov. Tommy Thompson and state Rep. Annette ''Polly'' Williams, a Milwaukee Democrat. Ms. Williams, an outspoken African-American advocate for the poor, has become a national hero of the voucher movement.

Vouchers allow parents to send their children to private or nonsecular schools at state expense. Free-market conservatives have made lavish promises on their behalf. Public schools actually would benefit, they said, from healthy competition. Public-school classes would get smaller. Needy students would get more attention. Everyone would learn more. No need for cumbersome bureaucracies or state regulations. Let the magic of the marketplace decide.

So, how are vouchers doing? Unfortunately, the marketplace produces disasters along with miracles. After five years, the results have been mixed.

Since January, two of the 17 private Milwaukee schools participating in the voucher program have gone out of business, leaving students stranded and parents scrambling to find another school. Two more have been put on the critical list with severe financial troubles.

The director of Exito, a school that closed in January, was charged with writing $47,000 in bad checks. A state audit found that the two closed schools may have exaggerated enrollments to overbill the state of Wisconsin as much as $390,000. The audit also found that of the 1,476 students participating in the program this school year, almost 200 students have dropped out since September.

Anecdotes of success

But there also have been numerous encouraging, heart-warming anecdotes of individual success. When I visited voucher students in Milwaukee a few years ago, teachers at independent schools pointed with pride to students who were making As and Bs, after having been given up as lost causes by teachers and principals in public schools.

Despite such encouraging anecdotes, Milwaukee's vouchers have yet to meet the grand promises of advocates who claimed the unleashed competition between public and private schools would markedly improve overall student achievement and test scores.

Now, even staunch voucher advocates like Ms. Williams are calling for more state oversight. Among the proposals being discussed are measures that would allow the Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction to certify the skills of school managers and enable it to order closings, improvements, new management or state takeover of troubled private schools that are in the voucher program.

In other words, the more you use public money for private schools, the more state regulations and bureaucracy follow and the more private schools begin to look like public schools.

It's time for a reality check. Vouchers sound simple but involve more risk than initially meets the eye. What good does it do to trade an academically substandard public school for a financially substandard private one?

Vouchers tend to be earmarked only for those schools on which the middle-class public has given up, schools whose performance appears to have gone over the brink, seemingly producing little more than dropouts or graduates who can't read their own diplomas.

Vouchers, then, are less a panacea than a last resort. They offer a triage approach the educational equivalent of combat medics who must perform the grim task of deciding who can be saved and who cannot. Vouchers cream off the most fortunate of the least fortunate, the students who have the brightest minds and the most conscientious parents and leave behind the rest to fend for themselves.

It's a way out for some students, and that's a blessing for them. But don't call it a cure for the nation's educational woes. President Clinton has good reason to be skeptical about vouchers. So do the rest of us.

Clarence Page is a syndicated columnist.

Pub Date: 3/15/96

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