Housing, Not School, Vouchers Are Best Remedy for Failing Schools

Larry Cuban is a professor of education at Stanford University

Education is at the top of most governors' agendas. Many states, including California, have embraced an accountability strategy to improve students' performance. Unfortunately, this strategy is, in large part, driven by a fear of voter retaliation. If action isn't taken, worry educators and administrators, school vouchers may gain momentum as the people's choice to fix schools. A tough accountability strategy will be popular among elected officials, but its chances of turning schools around and expanding opportunities for low-income rural and urban children are slim. Educators have banged the accountability drum twice before, in the early 1970s and since the mid-1980s, to little effect.

Hard-edged accountability measures have and will help many low-performing schools in middle- and upper-income suburban districts but such measures will offer little to children of low-income minority and white parents caught in communities afflicted with inadequate housing, unemployment and crime. The problem for children of poor and working-class parents is the systemic poverty in which they are mired. Thus, the conventional diagnosis for what makes many urban and rural schools poor performers--educators don't work hard enough--is seriously flawed.

Consider the solution for ailing schools that has divided the country and California for years: school vouchers. After almost three decades of debate over vouchers as a cure for failing public schools, court cases are slowly wending their way to the U.S. Supreme Court. However the highest court rules on the constitutionality of cashing in school vouchers at religious schools, there remains one plain fact: No body of evidence available from pilot projects in Milwaukee, Cleveland and elsewhere indicates that school vouchers make a difference in the lives of poor children, much less improve schools. Also evident is that parents, politicians and educators remain deeply divided over using taxpayer-financed vouchers at private religious schools. This stalemate could be broken if the problem of underperforming schools were reframed.

Most Americans know that the grim effects of poor housing, neighborhood crime and pervasive unemployment tear families apart and create conditions at school that well-intentioned, hard-working educators can barely cope with, much less overcome. This isn't to say that school boards and practitioners should be held less accountable for their actions. Rather, reframing the problem from one that concentrates on low-achieving schools to one that focuses on the poor urban and rural communities in which the schools are located may yield more promising solutions. Specifically, if poverty, not the schools, is the problem, then a different strategy is called for, one that targets inadequate housing, unemployment and crime in neighborhoods. That strategy, initially created in the Reagan administration, and supported since by both Democrats and Republicans, is federally funded housing vouchers.

Approximately 1.5 million households across the country receive tenant-based vouchers and certificates from the Department of Housing and Urban Development to rent apartments and homes in the private market. About two-thirds of these vouchers are issued to poor or near-poor families with children. Most poor families spend up to 50% of their disposable income on rent, leaving little for their children's health and education. Housing vouchers reduce this percentage to 30. Poor families have used these vouchers to move closer to better transportation, jobs and schools. Because race and social class segregate housing in most places, the federally funded vouchers permit poor parents living in racially isolated slums to choose schools in neighborhoods where their sons and daughters can learn in safe, integrated classrooms with higher academic standards than their neighborhood schools.

When he was HUD secretary, Jack F. Kemp started Moving to Opportunity in five cities, a program using housing vouchers to help poor families relocate. The Clinton administration has embraced the idea. In Chicago, one of the five cities in the HUD program, the Leadership Council for Metropolitan Open Communities already had been assisting poor black residents of public housing find subsidized housing in largely white suburbs using federally funded vouchers. Over the course of 18 years, nearly 6,000 families moved to apartments in neighborhoods known for their fierce opposition to African Americans moving in, and there was no white backlash.

In his 1999 budget, President Bill Clinton requested an additional 100,000 vouchers, at a cost of $580 million, to help families who move into private housing. These federally funded housing vouchers are a more direct remedy for helping low-income families secure access to better schools than school vouchers because they have two decades of bipartisan support behind them and a record of success, as the Chicago experience testifies. Unlike school vouchers, no Supreme Court ruling or voter referendums are necessary to implement them.

There are a record 5.3 million poor households, with 4.5 million children, who cannot find affordable housing, according to a recent HUD report. To improve their children's education, housing, not school, vouchers, offers the quickest and least divisive solution.*

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