The great voucher debate

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Today, Snell and Tokofsky discuss the effect of voucher programs on public education. Previously, they debated for students in low-performing campuses and the in improving public schools. Later in the week, they’ll discuss L.A. Unified’s dropout problem and breaking up the district.

Vouchers: alive, well and working
By Lisa Snell

David, you may refer to vouchers as an “ivory tower idea,” but in practice vouchers are alive and well in the United States, bringing educational hope to thousands of students trapped in poorly performing schools. Even in Los Angeles, privately financed vouchers through the Southern California Children’s Scholarship Fund have served thousands of low-income children. In Los Angeles, fewer than 200 children a year are given transfers under the No Child Left Behind Act even though thousands are eligible to transfer out of low-performing schools. In contrast, the Southern California Children’s Scholarship Fund placed 1,600 children in more than 240 private schools and has a waiting list of more than 5,000 names.

Nationwide, there are 21 school-choice voucher and tax-credit programs that serve approximately 200,000 students. Since 2004, nine new school-choice programs have been enacted in Georgia, Utah, Ohio, Arizona, Rhode Island and Washington D.C. These 21 programs are ranked in a February 2007 Milton Friedman Foundation report (PDF) that evaluates how well they live up to the late economist’s gold standard for school choice. These programs include the 17-year-old voucher program enacted by the Wisconsin Legislature, which serves about 18,500 students in 122 private schools; Florida’s McKay Scholarship Program, in which 25,000 special education students use vouchers to attend the school of their choice; and Arizona’s voucher program for foster children.


A significant body of research demonstrates that school choice through vouchers and tax credits has produced significant improvement in public schools. For a full review of the literature, see the recent analysis by the University of Arkansas’ Jay P. Greene: “Is School Choice Enough.” Greene cites a review by Clive Belfield and Henry Levin, both from Columbia University’s Teachers College, of more than 200 analyses of school choice literature. Belfield and Levin conclude, “The above evidence shows reasonably consistent evidence of a link between competition (choice) and education quality. Increased competition and higher educational quality are positively correlated.”

A new study of the Milwaukee voucher program by SchoolChoice Wisconsin shows that vouchers have also improved the graduation rate for low-income students. The Milwaukee public schools’ 2005-06 graduation rate was 53%, compared with 64% in the voucher-program schools.

California families already use vouchers. For preschool education, California offers child-care grants that follow the child into the preschool of the parents’ choice. For college education, there are Pell Grants and other financial aid programs. It is only in K-12 education that we have been resistant to adopting voucher-like programs for California.

At the national level, President Bush proposed a Pell Grants for Kids program in his 2008 State of the Union address. The program would provide more than $300 million in scholarships to allow low-income children in failing elementary and secondary schools to attend the public or private school of their parents’ choice. Under the president’s proposal, states, cities, local educational agencies and nonprofit organizations could apply for grants to administer the scholarships. Los Angeles would be a perfect location for a Pell Grant pilot program for students stuck in low-performing schools.

School vouchers and tax-credit programs are not just a pipe dream. They are legitimate programs serving kids in more than 13 states. If kids in failing schools in Milwaukee, Cleveland and Florida have access to more school choice through vouchers and tax credits, why shouldn’t kids in Los Angeles?

Lisa Snell is director of education and child welfare at the Reason Foundation.


Vouchers don’t have a monopoly on choice
By David Tokofsky

Lisa, you forgot to read my first post. In it, I agreed that choice is important. I noted that L.A. Unified has choices everywhere. Lack of choice is not the core problem here. Bringing up examples such as Milwaukee, Cleveland and Jeb Bushville Florida does not make me want to move my kids out of L.A. Unified to Daytona Beach. I don’t see tremendous emigration to these bastions of mediocre performance. Even the Dodgers are leaving Vero Beach. In fact, the irony is that while Bush’s Florida might have more voucher programs, more of its schools are under the federal “Performance Improvement” category than most states. Those PI campuses are what mayors call “failing schools.”

Lisa, you state that fewer than 200 L.A. Unified children are given transfers under the No Child Left Behind Act. But the fact is that most of the 60,000-plus kids in L.A. Unified magnet schools are those whose families you say need choice. They already had market savvy; they are already in the magnets. They have been taking advantage of L.A. Unified’s choices for decades. They didn’t need No Child Left Behind.

You cite examples of special-education students in Arizona who use vouchers, preschool kids in California getting child-care grants and some charitable philanthropists handing out their money to the poorest children to liberate them from state schools. I love these examples — they are good topics for my education doctorate thesis. But why are we neglecting to mention that after decades of vouchers, choices and now charters in Washington D.C. , its district spends more than $15,000 a kid? Or the fiasco of Philadelphia outsourcing control over many of its campuses to private companies? A good, balanced discussion at least requires insights from troubled examples, failures, successes and the 16 shades of gray between heaven and hell.

So let me enumerate yet again L.A. Unified’s choices. More than 60,000 students are enrolled in more than 100 magnet schools. Thousands more choose to attend Schools for Advanced Studies or regional gifted and talented programs. Roughly 5,000 kids participate in the district’s Permits with Transportation program, which sends students to campuses outside their neighborhoods. More than 100 charter schools that enroll more than 40,000 students have opened in less than 10 years. Nearly 100,000 high school students opt to attend nontraditional schools using our Options programs. Families come from every corner of the western United States to take advantage of our special education services.

Lisa, you note that 200,000 kids across the nation are in school-choice voucher and tax-credit programs. You make me realize that L.A. Unified might beat the entire nation. But let me double-check my Monday post to make sure I’m not forgetting any other choices in L.A. Unified.

Darn, we don’t have vouchers!

L.A. Unified’s problem is not lack of choice. What we do need is enhanced rigor and relevance in the curriculum. We need a stable leadership team like Boston and Atlanta have. We need a funding structure like ones in Kentucky, Connecticut, New York and other states. We need to make what’s available at Brentwood School, Archer School and Harvard Westlake to our nation’s newest immigrants and our district’s working families. Can you send me two vouchers so my daughters can leave their solid L.A. Unified schools and go to private religious campuses — like my mayor’s kids?


David Tokofsky was an L.A. Board of Education member for 12 years. Before that, he taught social studies and Spanish at John Marshall High School for 12 years.

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