A first report card on vouchers
Cleveland's program gets mixed grades. Parents are happier, but students may not be learning more. And vouchers may be dividing the city
By Adam Cohen/Cleveland
April 19, 1999
Are you afraid of the Judgment Day?" Sister Mira Anne Nattoli, clad in traditional Muslim robes, asks her fifth- and sixth-grade English class. Today's text is "The Twins and the Missing Math Paper," but the lesson is as much religion as English. "Whoever cheats," a young man reads carefully, "is not a good student of Islam." The students, about 95% African American, wear loose-fitting shirts and headdresses--skullcaps called kufis for the boys and scarves called khimars for the girls. Cleveland's Islamic School of Oasis is in many ways a typical Muslim day school, but with a twist. Tuition for more than half its students is paid by Cleveland, Ohio, taxpayers.
The Islamic school is part of Cleveland's pioneering school-voucher program. More than 3,700 of the city's students, nearly 5% of the public school enrollment, now use vouchers to escape the public school system. In a controversial move, Ohio chose to include religious schools in the program. Today the vast majority of vouchers are used at more than 50 religious schools--Roman Catholic, Lutheran, Baptist, Islamic and Seventh-Day Adventist. (The U.S. Supreme Court has not yet decided if tax-funded vouchers for religious schools violate the First Amendment's separation of church and state.) The remaining vouchers are used at a handful of secular private schools, including two Hope academies, founded specifically for voucher children.
Vouchers may be the next big thing in American education. Thousands of students in Cleveland and Milwaukee, Wis., are using tax dollars to attend private schools, and Florida is poised to adopt the nation's first statewide program. Texas, New Mexico and Pennsylvania may follow. In New York City, Mayor Rudolph Giuliani is thinking of introducing vouchers, though his schools' chancellor has threatened to resign if the mayor does. Privately funded voucher programs have sprung up in an additional 39 cities, and this week the largest such program in the U.S., founded by Wal-Mart scion John Walton and financier Ted Forstmann, is scheduled to award scholarships of as much as $1,600 each to 40,000 low-income students across the U.S., a number equivalent to the roll call in a city the size of Rochester, N.Y.
Vouchers' supporters see them as a revolutionary instrument--capable, in the short run, of rescuing poor kids from bad public schools and, in the long term, of forcing that education system to compete in a free market. But critics say vouchers will destroy the public schools by turning them into repositories for America's unwilling, or unwanted, schoolchildren. And they say that voucher programs, especially ones that include religious schools, will Balkanize America by abandoning its common core of teachings and traditions.
For years the voucher debate has been conducted in what-ifs and let's-assumes. But with Cleveland's program wrapping up its third year, hard results and conclusions are coming in--from parents, academics and standardized tests. There has been one clear upside to vouchers: a Harvard study found that two-thirds of Cleveland's voucher parents were "very satisfied" with the academic quality of their children's private schools, compared with only 30% of parents who stuck with public schools. What's not clear is whether they're right to be so happy.
A team of researchers from Indiana University that evaluated the program for the state of Ohio last fall found that vouchers were a mixed bag. Students attended classes that were, on average, smaller by three students. On the other hand, public schools had teachers with better credentials. They were more likely to have done postcollege work and had an average of five more years of teaching experience. In the end, the researchers concluded, class size and teacher qualifications canceled each other out.
The test scores were perhaps even more surprising. Voucher proponents have long argued that if students were allowed to leave failing public schools--for better-run and more disciplined private and parochial schools--their performance would improve dramatically. But the Indiana study found only minor differences between voucher students and public school students on a standardized fourth-grade academic-achievement test. Voucher students scored better than public school students in language and science, but the differences were, the study found, "relatively small." In the other areas tested--reading, math, social studies and "total battery"--voucher students did no better than their public school counterparts. In fact, the only students who really stood out--for their weak performance--were those in the city's two Hope academies. The test scores of these students, who are the poster children for vouchers in Cleveland, were not just lower, according to the study, but "significantly and substantially lower" than those of public school students and of voucher students in other private schools.
Voucher supporters fault the study's methodology, attacking everything from the impartiality of the researchers to the conditions under which the fourth-graders were tested. Lydia Harris, a reading specialist at Hope Central Academy, says the examiners who came to the school "didn't have a clue," and administered the test during children's nap time. She also suspects the State Department of Education, which commissioned the study, may have wanted vouchers to come off badly because its bureaucratic inertia makes it resist systemic reforms like vouchers. Even the study's authors concede their results don't necessarily discredit vouchers. They note that the small edge displayed by voucher students in two of the six test areas could grow over time to a more significant advantage. And they say the Hope academies' weak showing could have many explanations, including growing pains associated with starting a new school.
Still, public school backers seized on the hard numbers in the Indiana study as proof that vouchers can't deliver on their lofty claims. "These results are absolutely astounding," says Richard DeColibus, president of the Cleveland teachers' union. "But no one takes any notice of it because it goes against their preconceived notions that private schools teach better." The fact that the Indiana study didn't give second thoughts to voucher supporters is proof, he says, that their foremost concern is not children, but promoting a conservative education agenda. "Why would they want to expand a system that is demonstrably a failure?" DeColibus asks. "Because it's about ideology."
However, the most troubling aspect of the Cleveland voucher experiment has nothing to do with test scores and everything to do with the danger that vouchers could undermine the role that public schools have played in American life. Public schools have long held the promise of being America's great equalizer, mixing students of different races, classes and religions in a single student body. At their best, public schools have united diverse groups of students, many of them immigrants, by passing on the nation's shared civic heritage, from George Washington to George Washington Carver. Public schools have the ability to teach democracy simply by being open to all children, and regarding them--and their backgrounds and religions--as equally worthy. "Nobody claims private schools can't teach tolerance, mutual respect and nondiscrimination," says Princeton political science professor Amy Gutmann. "But in public schools, they are taught as much by the mixing of students as they are by the curriculum."
But Cleveland's voucher program threatens to replace the single-heritage credo of public schools with a system that teaches one faith in one school and a competing faith in another. That's because the hard truth of the city's voucher program is that the choice it offers parents is mainly a choice of religious schools. The problem is that Cleveland's vouchers are capped at $2,250--not unusual for a voucher, but far too little money to allow real choice in the private school market. A poor parent who wanted to use a voucher at the Hathaway Brown school in suburban Shaker Heights would be out of luck: tuition there costs more than $13,000 in the higher grades. The $2,250 vouchers work for religious schools because they receive charitable contributions from their churches, conduct fund raisers and keep salaries excruciatingly low. Starting pay for a Catholic school teacher in the Cleveland metro area is $16,000, vs. $26,490 in public schools.
Nor can parents use vouchers in suburban public schools. Ohio's voucher law was written to allow vouchers to be used in the suburban schools, but only in those that agreed to take them. Bert Holt, director of Cleveland's voucher program, had high hopes when she made the rounds of suburban school districts to persuade them to sign up. But not one suburb agreed to accept students from the city's heavily poor and minority student population. Result: 80% of Cleveland's vouchers are being used in religious schools.
Metro Catholic Parish school teaches many aspects of the nation's shared civic culture. But what it cannot convey is the American notion that all faiths and creeds are entitled to equal respect. The teachings of Christ infuse the academic environment. Hallways are lined with posters asking, WHAT WOULD JESUS DO? A morning announcement over the p.a. system reminds students of the importance of Lent, and tells them to pray to "the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit." And all students, Roman Catholic or not, must participate in Catholic prayer. "We're very up front about the fact that we have a formal religion class every day," says Sister Anne Maline, Metro Catholic's principal. "We pray every day, over the p.a. system and in church, and we ask the parents to sign a contract allowing it."
The Islamic School of Oasis, across town, also requires prayer: Zuhr, a short service, four days a week, and the longer Jumah service on Fridays. The posters here have an Islamic theme, like the MUSLIM CHILD'S ALPHABET, in which each letter has a Muslim reference: A is for Allah and Q is for Qu'ran. "We started as a religious school because the rights of Muslims were not being protected in the public schools," says principal Da'ud Abdul Malik. Before vouchers, about three-fourths of the student body was Muslim. Now, a majority is non-Muslim. But as at Metro Catholic, the religious requirements apply to all.
In a recent TIME/CNN poll, respondents opposed public vouchers for private and religious schools 54% to 34%. Cleveland's experience helps explain why people are wary, but also why vouchers have such a strong appeal. Most voucher parents aren't pro-voucher or anti-public school: they have a pragmatic desire for safe, effective schools. In some cases, vouchers have made all the difference. Cleveland parent Monique Malone used a voucher to send her son John to the Marotta Montessori school and watched him thrive in a classroom of children purposefully working with blocks, maps and other didactic tools. "The education has been phenomenal," she says. And many voucher parents say the biggest change in their children's new schools has been their sense of order. Melissa DeJesus once worked in a nonviolence program in the Cleveland public schools and saw how rowdy they can be. She now sends her daughter to a parochial school. "They're real strict," she says. "In a Catholic school, there's not a lot of ruckus."
And that may be the biggest lesson from Cleveland. If public schools want to maintain their position, they need to convince parents that they can do the job. "The real choice isn't between vouchers and the status quo," says Gutmann. "It's between vouchers and improving the public schools."
--With reporting by Ken Myers/Cleveland
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Cover Date: April 26, 1999
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