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Commentary

Vouchers Have Been Tried--and Failed

October 18, 2000|EDWARD B. FISKE and HELEN F. LADD | Edward B. Fiske is a former education editor of the New York Times. Helen F. Ladd is professor of public policy studies and economics at Duke University. Their book, "When Schools Compete: A Cautionary Tale," was published earlier this year by the Brookings Institution Press

It is easy to understand why some Californians look to vouchers as a means of improving public education. Many school systems, especially those in low-income urban areas, have yet to figure out how to help their students achieve at the levels they need to function in today's world. And who can disagree with the notion that parents should have more options in deciding where their children will be educated?

Unfortunately, practical experience demonstrates that the solution proposed by Proposition 38 on the November ballot--a $4,000 voucher to every child to be used at any public, private, parochial or home school--will not work.

This judgment is based on evidence from the only major education system that has implemented the basic principles of the voucher proposal over an extended period of time. A decade ago, New Zealand, which has the population of South Carolina--3.8 million--similar social and cultural traditions to the U.S. and a sizable minority population of Maori and Pacific Islanders, gave each of its primary and secondary schools operational autonomy. It also abolished geographic attendance zones and gave parents the right to apply to the school of their choice, thereby forcing schools to compete for students in an educational marketplace. New Zealand's experiment has been described as a "quasi-voucher" system because funding essentially follows the student to the school of choice, including parochial schools. So what happened in New Zealand?

First, parents embraced the right to choose and exercised it to an extent that substantially altered enrollment patterns in the major urban areas. But while many low-income Maori and Pacific Island families took advantage of the opportunity to change schools, even more middle-class white parents did so. As a result, enrollment patterns became significantly more polarized by ethnicity and socioeconomic status.

Second, "parental choice" morphed into "school choice." Schools that had more applicants than classroom seats opted for the students who were easiest to teach and left the others--those with learning or behavior problems, those from disadvantaged homes, those with limited English--to be dealt with by less-popular schools. Thus for the parents of many disadvantaged students, the right to choose turned out to be a hollow promise.

Third, this "cherry-picking" by popular schools exacerbated the problems of schools left behind. Unpopular schools found themselves dealing with increasingly high proportions of difficult-to-educate students at the same time they were losing staff positions. New Zealanders described these schools, many in low-income urban areas, as downwardly spiraling.

Another problem relates to the balancing of interests. Any public school system has multiple stakeholders, from students and parents to professional educators and the citizens who support it with taxes. These stakeholders have varying, sometimes conflicting, interests. A voucher system gives primacy to one set of stakeholders: the parents of current students.

While giving parents a say in where their children go to school has great value, it can lead to situations where the actions of some parents infringe on the interests of other parents and the system as a whole. This occurred in New Zealand when popular schools drew up exclusionary admissions policies, despite laws against ethnic discrimination.

It is true, of course, that New Zealand could have made some different policy decisions and minimized some of these problems. For example, it might have avoided the shift from parental to school choice by forcing popular schools to allot spaces by lottery. Such a safeguard would be impossible under the rules of Proposition 38, however, because voucher-eligible private schools would never relinquish control over their admissions policies.

By the mid-1990s, realizing that its quasi-voucher system had seriously damaged many schools while failing to extend the right of parental choice to many low-income families, New Zealand began to pull back. The conservative National government restored the right of all students to attend the school nearest their homes if they so chose and began to provide financial and other assistance to spiraling schools. A more liberal Labor government elected last December has continued the retreat, in part by enacting legislation requiring popular schools to select students through lotteries.

New Zealand policymakers did not have the foresight to realize the havoc that would come with a quasi-voucher system. Californians have the luxury of learning from the New Zealand experience. Unless they vote down Proposition 38, Californians are likely to end up doing what New Zealand is doing now: picking up the pieces.

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