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Vouchers: More heat than light

A controversial school reform stirs the presidential campaign

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When Francisco Lopez casts his vote in the presidential election this fall, school vouchers just might be a deal breaker. With the help of two $4,800 publicly funded "scholarships," or vouchers, Lopez, a father of five, sends two of his daughters to a Roman Catholic girls' school a few blocks from their home on the south side of Milwaukee, Wis. Rather than place their children across town in the public school system's gifted program, Lopez and his wife Monica opted for a neighborhood private school that offers smaller classes and better communication between teachers and parents. The Lopezes are so pleased with their family's three-year experience in the Milwaukee program--the oldest and largest U.S. public voucher initiative--that they're reconsidering how to vote. "At first Al Gore was our favorite," Monica says, but she has heard he is against school vouchers, "so now I'm not sure who I like."

In an election year when both major-party candidates are making education a top priority, one of the issues generating the most heated debate--and creating the most confusion among voters--is school vouchers, a controversial reform that uses tax dollars to help parents send their kids to private schools or hire private tutors. Statewide voucher proposals are on the ballot in California and Michigan. And George W. Bush advocates a federal voucher program that Gore opposes.

Bush would take federal aid from poorly performing public schools and give it to low-income parents to apply toward private-school tuition or tutoring. Like other voucher proponents, Bush argues that his plan would force schools to improve by making them compete for families' money, just as colleges must do. But Bush has stopped using the V word, saying he supports "opportunity scholarships." That euphemism, pollsters say, evokes fewer negative connotations among voters, who have been told by teachers' unions and other opponents of vouchers that they would siphon money away from public education.

Do vouchers help boost the test scores of children who use them? Researchers are trying to find out, but the evidence so far is inconclusive. Henry Levin, a school-privatization expert at Columbia University, says when students with vouchers are compared with others, "the differences in performance are so small that when people on both sides of this issue are arguing passionately, they're arguing based on personal beliefs, not evidence."

The best evidence should come from the decade-old Milwaukee program, which has more than 8,000 students. But Wisconsin stopped funding research on the program in 1995, after John Witte, a politics professor at the University of Wisconsin, found no difference in test scores between students who used the vouchers and a sample of Milwaukee public school students. Witte did note, however, that parents who used the vouchers were generally more satisfied with their children's schooling than other parents were.

The two other publicly funded voucher initiatives are a four-year-old, 3,800-pupil program in Cleveland, Ohio, and a one-year-old Florida program with 53 pupils. Florida's is the nation's first statewide voucher plan, promising up to $4,000 per pupil toward private-school tuition for students in public schools that receive an F grade from state authorities. Only two Pensacola elementary schools earned this dubious distinction during the program's first year, and none did in its second year.

Voucher fans cite the improvement of the Pensacola schools that lost students last year as proof that vouchers can work indirectly to improve public education by forcing it to compete for students. Former Milwaukee school superintendent Howard Fuller, a voucher proponent, says his city's program has pushed public schools to tout their strengths in radio ads.

Other major studies of vouchers have focused on privately funded programs. A study of private programs in New York, Washington and Dayton, Ohio, conducted by Harvard University researcher Paul Peterson, was released in September and showed a headline-grabbing 6.3% gain in test scores by African-American students who used vouchers. However, one of the research companies that gathered data for Peterson expressed concern about how he used the information, and called his study's findings premature.

But nobody's waiting in California, where supporters and opponents of vouchers are clashing over Proposition 38, a ballot initiative that would give each of the state's 6 million schoolchildren a $4,000 chit good for any school. That measure is trailing in the latest polls, as is a similar ballot initiative in Michigan.

--With reporting by David Jackson/Los Angeles and Marguerite Michaels/Chicago


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Cover Date: October 9, 2000

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