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Would Vouchers Help the Poor? : For Most, Best Idea Is to Work for Improved Local Schools

November 24, 1985|ED DORN | Ed Dorn is deputy director of research at the Joint Center for Political Studies in Washington.

My daughter's tuition is $1,500 a year. I guess I am getting off light, considering that tuition at some of the nation's private colleges is more than $10,000 a year. But then, Kirstin is only 5 years old. The cost will go up if she enters a private elementary school next September.

This brings me to the Reagan Administration's school voucher proposal. Education Secretary William J. Bennett claims that poor parents with educationally disadvantaged children will have the same kind of choice that I have. They would be able to send their children to the local public school, or they can receive a voucher valued at roughly $600 and use it to help pay for tuition at a private or parochial school, or at a public school in another district.

I could really get a lot of mileage out of a voucher because it would reduce my out-of-pocket tuition cost. Ironically, the reason I would benefit from a voucher is that I can already afford to send my daughter to private school. If I couldn't, the extra few hundred bucks probably wouldn't make much difference. Although a few private and parochial schools charge only $1,000 or so for tuition, most are much more expensive. Public schools also charge to educate children whose parents reside (and pay taxes) in another district. Inner-city parents would pay at least $3,000 a year to send one of their children to a suburban public school.

There may be tens of thousands of parents whose economic status makes them well off enough to afford the additional several hundred to several thousand dollars a year needed to exercise choice, but not so affluent that they would be ineligible for a voucher. Among those who fit within the margins, some would seriously consider Bennett's option.

Now, what is it that they would have to consider? First, they must figure out what a voucher would really be worth. The Administration's $600 figure is the national average derived by dividing the $3 billion compensatory education budget by the number of children who participate. Real values would range from less than $300 in California to around $1,100 in Alaska. More important, if we counted the 10 million children who should receive compensatory education rather than the 5 million who actually do, the national average would work out closer to $300. The value of a voucher to a real parent would then be reduced considerably--to about $150 in California.

Second, how do parents know that their children would be better off in another school? A 1981 study showed that, on average, students in private schools do better than those in public schools. But what does that have to do with John Q. Handiman's educationally disadvantaged kid?

After all, one reason for the study's finding is that private schools admit few disadvantaged students. Thus John Q.'s third problem is to find a school that will accept his child. If his child were qualified for admission to a highly selective school, she probably would not be considered educationally disadvantaged--which means that she would not be eligible for a voucher even if her parents were poor.

Not all private and parochial schools turn away the disadvantaged, however. Some Roman Catholic schools, in particular, have turned the huddled masses into productive citizens; so have thousands of public schools. In both cases the keys are the same: good principals, competent teachers, dedicated parents, disciplined students and clear standards.

Rather than endure the uncertainty and disruption that the voucher program would cause, John Q. should get together with his neighbors and help to improve the quality of local public schools. (About 90% of American children attend public schools.) If the Administration sincerely wanted to help the educationally disadvantaged, it would put more effort into improving existing compensatory programs.

Meanwhile, Bennett should give the vouchers to my middle class neighbors and me. If we wait long enough we probably will get them anyway because goodies such as these tend to operate like a ski lift: they start at the bottom and gradually move up the socioeconomic hill. That is what happened to college level student financial aid programs during the 1970s.

In fact, help for Kirstin and me is precisely what the Reaganites had in mind all along. The voucher scheme is the Administration's alternative to an earlier tuition tax credit proposal. Congress rejected the tax credit approach because it would have further reduced tax revenues at a time of growing deficits and aided the middle class while programs for the poor were being slashed.

With vouchers the Administration hopes to circumvent both objections. Vouchers have no effect on the deficit, at least in the short run, because they would be funded out of the existing compensatory education budget. And help for a few poor people may be the price the Reaganites may have to pay to help middle-class people like me.

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