Commentary | Education

Lessons—Better Than a Voucher, a Ticket to Suburbia

These pieces originally appeared as a weekly column entitled “Lessons” in The New York Times between 1999 and 2003.


Better Than a Voucher, a Ticket to Suburbia

By Richard Rothstein

Supporters of private school tuition vouchers for low-income families say they only want the poor to have the same options as the middle class.

But school voucher plans do not offer the poor a middle-class alternative. They do not permit enrollment in suburban public schools with small classes, attractive campuses, highly trained teachers and student bodies where high expectations rub off and become the norm.

But the instinct of school voucher advocates is correct: the poor should have a middle-class education. Yet they are likely to get it only by living among the middle class, in middle-class communities. What is needed is a different kind of voucher, a housing voucher that helps poor families move to suburbs, as middle-class families do, in search of better school environments.

It is not an entirely far-fetched idea. In 1969, a federal court ruled (in Gautreaux v. Kemp) that Chicago’s public housing had been purposely built in the ghetto to further segregation. The housing authority was ordered to subsidize apartment rentals, dispersed in the suburbs, for low-income families. Years later, the children of these suburban movers seemed to have better achievement, lower dropout and higher college attendance rates than similar children who stayed in the ghetto.

Inspired, the federal government began its own experiment in 1994, called Moving To Opportunity. It gives a total of about 2,000 poor families in five cities, including New York, housing vouchers to relocate to middle-income areas. Counselors work with the families, their new neighbors, and suburban real-estate agents to help the moves go smoothly.

The Department of Housing and Urban Development is tracking these families. So far, movers seem to have better jobs and health care. Their teenagers apparently commit fewer crimes, and family members have less fear. It is too early for academic results, but better social and labor market experiences typically lead to school success.

This serious effort to give middle-class options to the poor is a far cry from school voucher ballot proposals in California and Michigan, promising about $4,000 per pupil. Nor does the federal experiment resemble limited plans, with tuition vouchers of similar value, in Florida, Milwaukee and Cleveland. And it is certainly unlike private tuition grants of up to $1,700, now financed by wealthy critics of public education, for poor children in several cities.

These school voucher programs only help children attend low-cost parochial or other private schools, not the desirable suburban public schools sought by the middle class.

Poor children do not generally get better educations at parochial or other neighborhood private schools. True, low-income private schools sometimes seem to excel – by concentrating a neighborhood’s most motivated parents and students. But if school vouchers made low-cost private schooling more available, this concentration would be diluted, as students in public and private schools became more similar.

After studying privately donated tuition programs in three cities, a team of voucher proponents recently announced that poor children who transferred to private schools succeed. But data on which they relied show only that some black transfer students scored higher. Others did not. Hispanic students did no better in private schools than in public ones.

Some private schools serving low-income urban pupils do a better job than most public schools with similar students; some low- income public schools do better than most private schools. But urban private schools do not perform consistently better, partly because, as in the suburbs, peers strongly influence achievement. When low-performing children attend neighborhood private schools filled with other disadvantaged children, they do not acquire middle-class role models and higher community expectations.

Middle-income families are seeking a “peer effect” when they move to suburbs that send many graduates to prestigious colleges. Suburban schools’ superior performance partly results from having students who reinforce each others’ ambitions.

A desire for poor children to have middle-class choices can be fulfilled, but not with vouchers to attend urban schools with other low-income pupils. Without suburban integration, low-income pupil achievement will not easily improve. Americans have bused children, redrawn attendance zones and set up magnet schools in fruitless efforts to equalize schooling without equalizing neighborhoods.

While Moving to Opportunity may show a route to equal education, the political will may be absent to relocate large numbers of poor families to the suburbs. But if this nation truly wants the poor to have choices like the middle class, there is no alternative. School vouchers are no substitute.

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