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Universal Tuition Vouchers
By David W. Kirkpatrick (September 11, 2008)
Senior Education Fellow
U.S. Freedom Foundation www.freedomfoundation.us

 
        For nearly 20 years there has been a voucher program in Milwaukee public schools plus, more recently, charter schools in the district.   The program's success is indicated by its longevity and steady growth, its acceptance by the general community, community leaders, and members of the school board.  The latter includes a 2002 study by then-board member John Gardner.  He concluded there had been significant system improvements in the Milwaukee schools in the late 1990s, when enrollment in voucher schools was increasing most rapidly.  His conclusions have been confirmed by other studies such as work by Harvard economist Caroline Hoxby.
 
         A recent study from The Heartland Institute in Chicago,  "Can Vouchers Reform Public Schools? Lessons from the Milwaukee Parental Choice Program," by George Clowes takes a different approach.  While he agrees progress has been made in Milwaukee, he looks beyond the current program which serves low-income, predominantly minority, urban students, utilizing what Milton Friedman has termed "charity vouchers."
 
         This commentary is based on the Executive Summary of Clowes' study, (see www.Hearltand.org) and is largely his words.
 
         1. Existing programs offer "charity vouchers," not universal vouchers.
         Milton Friedman has said that "Charity vouchers help the poor but they will not produce any real reform of the educational system.  And what we need is a real reform."
         Other proponents of market competition in K-12 education have repeatedly warned that the results from voucher programs like Milwaukee's are not instructive as to what would likely ensue from vouchers in a free-market system of education.
 
         2. Before rejecting universal vouchers, we should try them.
         The shortcomings of existing voucher programs are often used as evidence that universal vouchers would not work. That's like eating an apple to see what an orange tastes like.
         A universal voucher, available to all students, would help the poor more than a charity voucher because it would make possible a revolution in schooling.
         Friedman's idea of a universal voucher is one that is of a reasonable amount, doesn't impose detailed regulations, and does not prohibit parents from adding to the value of the voucher.
 
         3. The Milwaukee Parental Choice Program demonstrates that even a charity voucher program improves public schools.
         As but one of many examples, the graduation rate from 2002-3 to 2006-7 not only increased from 49% to 58% but the graduation rates for Black and Hispanic students increased more than the white graduation rate. Also, while the dropout rate for minority and low-income students went down, which increased enrollment by students who tend to test poorly, achievement levels did not decline.
 
         4. Public schools are most likely to improve when vouchers pose an imminent and specific threat.
         Three separate studies of Florida's A+ vouchers indicate the response of a public school to voucher competition increases as the threat of vouchers becomes more imminent.
 
         5. Public schools are most likely to improve when voucher values are comparable to public school spending levels.
         Although the maximum value of the Milwaukee voucher is still only half the per-pupil spending in Milwaukee's public schools, the city's voucher program has grown steadily for the past decade by an average of 1,500 students a year.  By contrast, the voucher program in Cleveland, where the voucher is worth only about a quarter of the per-pupil spending in the city's public schools, has grown little over the past several years.
 
         6. Public schools are most likely to improve if enrollment losses due to competition from voucher schools have financial consequences.
         Public schools should be funded the same way voucher schools are funded - based on the number of students who attend the school.
 
         7. Recommendations:
  • Give voucher programs time to work and check out all aspects of performance.
  • Don't give up on universal vouchers before they have been tried anywhere.
  • When designing voucher programs, make the competitive effect of vouchers as explicit as possible.
  • The more closely the value of the voucher approaches public school per-pupil spending, the more secular private schools are likely to participate and the greater the variety of educational choices available for parents.
  • Public schools should experience financial consequences when the lose students to voucher schools.  The best way to do this is to have "the dollar follow the child" to schools.
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             "The more the education bureaucracy participates in reform the more likely it is to fail. Put simply, the education bureaucracy will always transform the best reform ideas into models of its own bureaucratic mediocrity."p. 28, Edward Rauchut, "I Quit," pp 26-27, Teacher Magazine, "February 1992

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    Copyright 2008 David W. Kirkpatrick
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