School Choice Would Leave Needy Further Behind

By Laura F. Rothstein
Health Law & Policy Institute

Florida's school voucher plan recently was ruled unconstitutional based on a constitutional ban on using taxpayer money for private school tuition. The First Amendment's separation of church and state was the basis for a recent ruling invalidating a voucher program in Cleveland, Ohio.

While the Florida and Ohio cases highlight different aspects of the legality of such voucher programs -- and the courts have certainly not finished addressing these questions -- the question of whether such programs are good policy will also begin receiving attention as a result of the presidential campaign. Both candidates will no doubt focus on these issues.

The public policy question is whether school choice actually accomplishes the goal of improving education for children. The generally stated reason that many advocates give for supporting school choice programs, including voucher programs, charter schools and open enrollment/transfer systems, is that having competition will result in improved public schools.

The complaints about problems with public schools are legitimate. In many public schools the quality of teaching is deficient, student academic performance is deficient, and behavior problems are rampant. There are realistic concerns about drugs, school dropouts and decaying buildings. But school choice is not the simple answer to the complex problems of public schools.

While some choice options, such as charter schools, provide an interesting opportunity to experiment with alternative educational programming, they will not resolve all of the public school problems.

Any claim that alternative educational programs, such as private schools and charter schools, are doing a better job than public schools, must be evaluated by asking whether these schools have served the same proportion of students with disabilities, slow learners and students with language barriers. The preliminary data indicate that alternative programs are not serving these populations at the same level as the public schools. In fact, some of the schools funded through voucher programs are not doing a better job of providing education for any population.

Experience suggests that many private schools would be unwilling to accept special education students or would not provide appropriate special education if they did. Thus, the most expensive to educate students will be left behind. Some school choice programs will result in the "best and the brightest" and the easiest and least expensive to educate leaving the neighborhood public school setting.

Using public dollars as vouchers for these students will deplete the resources needed to appropriately educate those left behind. We will only have delayed the need to face the challenge to adequately fund all public schools.

Undoubtedly, there will be legal challenges to choice programs to ensure that these programs do not discriminate against students with disabilities in admission or providing appropriate special education. Such challenges may result in a court decision requiring greater appropriations of public funding for vouchers to cover the costs of special education funding in the "chosen" school. If more public funding is going to be needed to support nondiscriminatory choice programs, why not appropriate it to the public schools in the first place?

I do not oppose all school choice programs. Charter schools can provide the opportunity to experiment with teaching methodology and focus on special populations. Voucher programs, however, provide a false promise of improved public schools for everyone.

True competition can only occur if all the schools have to educate the same student populations. Policy-makers need to consider whether the effort to provide additional public funding to ensure that special education students have equal opportunities for school choice is better directed toward funding for public education generally.

Policy-makers also should direct their efforts toward examining how to allocate such funding to teacher salaries, teacher training and improved physical plants, rather than debating the pros and cons of a voucher system. This effort will be good for all children, not just the few who want out of their neighborhood school.

This editorial was originally published in the Houston Chronicle, March 27, 2000, page 23A.