Will Vouchers Work For Low-Income Students?


David Berliner, Walter Farrell, Luis Huerta, and Roslyn Mickelson


Center for Education Research, Analysis, and Innovation
School of Education
University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee
PO Box 413
Milwaukee WI 53201


December 19, 2000




Vouchers Work For Low-Income Students?

By David Berliner, WalterFarrell, Luis Huerta, and Roslyn Mickelson

The contentious debatecontinues over whether vouchers are the silver bullet that will improve poorchildren’s education.

A recent study concludedthat low-income students who used vouchers to attend private schools in Dayton,Ohio, Washington D.C. and New York City, performed better on achievement teststhan a comparable group of students who attended public schools in thosecities.1 But the evidence from this study is nowcontested, and the effects, if any, are limited to only African-Americanstudents.

Simple interpretations ofthese data at the press conference announcing the results were later refuted bythe study’s own contracted data analysts, who noted that no one understandswhat happened in this study and thus “we cannot place much policy weight onit.”2 In fact, this study shouldn’t even bethought of as a “scientific” study until the raw data can be peer reviewed byother scholars—something this set of Harvard researchers have so far declinedto allow.

Finally, the findings, evenif true, say nothing about the large achievement gap that still remains betweenthe children of middle- and low-income families of all ethnic and racialgroups.

Differences between poorand middle-class students are evident on the first day of school. Theseachievement differences cannot be the product of failing public schools inwhich poor students are trapped, or due to the “soft racism of lowexpectations,” which voucher advocates charge. They are the product of manythings, including the lower educational attainment of parents in poverty andthe restricted access these children have to proper nutrition, health care, daycare and educational resources in their pre-school years. We exacerbate thosedifferences when we concentrate these children into deteriorating schools thatlack the resources and amenities of their counterparts in wealthier suburbancommunities.

Even if we assumed fromthis study that with the aid of vouchers the placement of poor children inprivate schools did result in positive effects, however, should we thengeneralize the findings to promote a large-scale voucher program? Will vouchersfor millions of American students at a cost of billions of American tax dollarsimprove our schools? The research informs us that the answer is no.

We have good evidence thatthe large-scale voucher programs such as were defeated in Michigan andCalifornia in November 2000, and such as those that have been suggested in thepast by president-elect George W. Bush and by freshman Arizona RepublicanCongressman Jeff Flake, will not work to the advantage of the vast majority ofpoor children. The two largest wide-scale voucher experiments have been done inChile and New Zealand. Evaluations of these programs teach an identical lesson:in neither nation did low-income students end up better off.3

The voucher programsreinforced segregation and inequality between poor students and theirbetter-off counterparts. As might be suspected, private schools competing inthe free market employed screening procedures that kept out those that were themost challenging to teach—the academically weak, the disabled, and the poor.Exactly as predicted by those who worry about the effects of vouchers, themiddle and affluent classes profited from vouchers and the disadvantagedclasses suffered. Those who needed education the most benefited the least.

Indeed, when privateschools do have beneficial effects it almost always can be attributable to theinterest of the parents, smaller school and class sizes, and the powerful peereffect: the positive influence of achievement-oriented students on the school,after those who choose not to achieve, or who cannot achieve, have been dumpedfrom the school. Well-funded public schools in economically advantaged suburbshave many of these same characteristics. But the schools where poor people sendtheir children do not.

Vouchers cannot possiblysolve that problem because there will never be enough room, or enough desire,to accommodate all the poor students in the few excellent private schools wehave. Inevitably, most of the students who choose to leave public schools willend up in second- and third-rate private schools. So vouchers for low-incomestudents cannot be expected to have much effect on their overall achievement.What can confidently be predicted is that vouchers will segregate poor studentsfrom middle-class and more affluent students, as occurred in Chile and NewZealand.

When a local police forceturns out to be corrupt, brutal, and unresponsive to civilian complaints, andthe crime rate appears intractable, no one seriously suggests granting vouchersto private citizens to purchase private protection. No one complains about apolice “monopoly.” Instead, political leaders recognize the role of the policeto serve the common good. They recommend police department reforms and investresources to help make communities safer.

So it is with publicschools. We should fix them where they do not work. But we won’t be able to dothat with a system known to have failed elsewhere.

We all know that qualitypublic education is unequally distributed in the United States. Vouchers cannotsolve that problem, however. Instead, they simply use public money to subsidizeprivate schools, which are often supported by families who don’t want theirchildren to mix with those who differ from them. It is ironic that someminority and poor parents in inner cities have turned to vouchers as adesperate last alternative to their chronically disappointing public schools.

A great deal of segregationtakes place in this country already through our choice of housing. Vouchers addanother means to segregate our citizens, this time using public money.

Those who offer vouchers asthe silver bullet solution to the low academic achievement of poor studentsignore the complexity of what contributes to student achievement . They alsoturn their backs on our goal to build a more democratic society.

Instead of subsidizingprivate schools in a way likely to further fragment society, the world’srichest nation might consider investing in ways to improve low-incomecommunities -- through job-training, public transportation to connect theunemployed with jobs in the suburbs, quality day care for working families,after-school and Saturday programs to offer remedial education, and support forcommunity youth groups to teach adolescents pro-social behavior, to name just afew.

The real answer toimproving the quality of urban schools is to improve the quality of life forthose who live in our urban neighborhoods. That’s a task that vouchers won’taccomplish, and one that, if undertaken, would make vouchers unnecessary.

1. Howell, W., Wolf, P., and Peterson,P., “Test Score Effects of School Vouchers in Dayton, Ohio, New York City, andWashington D.C.: Evidence from Randomized Field Trials.” Program on EducationPolicy and Governance, Harvard University. August 2000. Available at:http://hdc-www.harvard.edu/pepg/

2. Zernike, Kate.  “New DoubtCast Is Cast on Study that Backs Voucher Efforts.”  New York Times,September 15, 2000, p. A21.

3. McEwan, P., and Carnoy, M., “TheEffectiveness and Efficiency of Private Schools in Chile’s Voucher System,” EducationEvaluation and Policy Analysis (22), 2000 pp. 213-240.

   Fiske, E., andLadd, H., When Schools Compete:  A Cautionary Tale. Washington, DC:The Brookings Institution, 2000.