Myths and Facts About School Vouchers

MYTH #3: Without Vouchers, Public Schools Will Lack the Incentive to Adopt Reforms and Improve Their Performance

FACT: Many public school systems are improving, but voucher programs-where they exist-undercut this improvement.

Voucher supporters such as researcher Jay Greene claim that vouchers have a positive impact on public schools because the threat they pose leads public schools to improve. In a February 2001 report, Greene asserted that the "Florida A+" voucher program led to public school gains. But researchers at Rutgers University and the University of Colorado at Boulder have identified flaws in Greene's analysis.7 Researcher Martin Carnoy found that under the accountability system that Florida created before vouchers existed, student improvement was greater than after the so-called 'voucher threat' was introduced.8 Greene also neglected to consider the significant impact of extra resources, both state and local, which were directed towards Florida's 'F'-rated public schools. These resources enabled the schools to extend the school day, week, and year, as well as strengthen professional development for teachers. These elements-combined with accountability measures-may well have been the real cause of improvements in these Florida public schools.9 Indeed, Greene's own research leads to the conclusion that accountability, testing, and increased resources led to public school improvement in Texas, a state which has no publicly funded voucher program.10

Voucher supporters also cite conclusions by Harvard University researcher Caroline Hoxby that competition from private school prompts public school improvements. But Duke University Professor Helen Ladd and other analysts have questioned Hoxby's conclusions. In a study published earlier this year, Ladd observed that other researchers "have used better data and alternative methods and have found no positive effects on public school achievement from competition from private schools."11

While pro-voucher forces claim that public schools won't improve without "competition" from voucher programs, the evidence dispels this myth. In fact, public school districts in Los Angeles, Baltimore, Dallas, Portland, Minneapolis, San Diego, Birmingham and Seattle raised both their reading and math scores last year in every grade tested-and each of these urban districts did so without the presence of a publicly funded voucher program.12

The only real competition that vouchers create is for limited tax dollars. Last year, this situation nearly went from bad to worse when Wisconsin's governor proposed spending more money on Milwaukee's voucher program, while cutting a similar amount from a class-size reduction program with proven results.13 The Student Achievement Guarantee in Education (SAGE) reduces student-teacher ratios to 15:1 and provides extra resources for low-income children. SAGE, unlike, vouchers, is proven to raise student achievement. Research shows that SAGE has helped public schools narrow the achievement gap between white and minority students.14 But it took a determined grassroots campaign by parents, teachers and civic leaders to protect SAGE funding last year. Having to compete for funding with the Milwaukee voucher program means SAGE's impact is needlessly limited.

Voucher supporters point with pride to the money that public school districts are spending to 'compete' with private and/or voucher schools for students. Public schools should regularly reach out to parents, but it's worth considering whether the Milwaukee public schools could have found a better use for the $95,000 it spent this year on an advertising campaign.15

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