Commentary | Economic Growth

Bush’s Voucher Plan Gets Failing Grade

Opinion pieces and speeches by EPI staff and associates. 


Bush’s Voucher Plan Gets Failing Grade

by Martin Carnoy

It’s unclear how sincere George W. Bush is in his endeavor to establish himself as the “Education President.” It’s all he wanted to talk about his first week in office. But what was he saying?

The centerpiece of his new education agenda – accountability – has again been marred by a failed political gimmick, school vouchers. Here are four reasons why the President’s voucher plan has no place in our national discourse on education.

The first is that the amount of the voucher, about $1,500, would not be enough to pay full tuition at most private schools. Since the Bush plan is aimed at low-income students attending “failing” schools, tuition payments over and above the amount of the voucher would prevent many families from transferring their children to private schools.

Second, the only schools with tuition low enough that even a limited number of low-income parents could afford them would likely be religious schools, mainly Catholic or evangelist. Using federal funds to support religious education raises serious Constitutional questions about the separation of church and state.

The President is eager to provide religious organizations with a more prominent role in solving societal problems. But most Americans do not support sending children to religious schools at public expense.

Third, there is little or no evidence that private schools could do a better job than public schools of getting low-income students to pass state exams. Many low-income parents want better schooling for their children, but experiments where some families got vouchers to send their children to available private schools show mixed results.

At best, the achievement gains for low-income children who went to available (and almost exclusively religious) private schools for two years were small compared to students who stayed in public schools. The more usual result in such experiments was that voucher students made no gains.

Families who receive vouchers and use them are bound to be pleased to have a choice of where to send their children to school. The downside is that few parents will actually get that choice. There will be increased pressure on public education to improve, but fewer resources with which to do so.

There is a final problem. The President’s plan argues that we have been throwing money at public schools without holding them accountable for their results. People on both sides of the aisle agree that we need to find a way to hold schools more accountable.

But under the Bush plan, private schools that accept students using school vouchers will not be required to report their results. It will therefore be difficult, if not impossible, to accurately gauge what effect vouchers are having on student performance.

In many ways, the Bush plan is a cynical response to the lack of resources in low-income communities. Children who attend under performing schools live in communities where parents are less educated, where schools have a hard time attracting certified, high quality teachers and administrators, and where highly educated volunteers — so readily available in wealthier suburbs – are scarce.

Filling a few empty seats in private religious schools is not going to solve these problems. Instead of threatening public schools with vouchers, the Bush administration should take a long, hard look at how to turn inner-city schools into the kinds of schools suburban children attend.

Martin Carnoy, a professor at Stanford University, is a research associate with the Economic Policy Institute in Washington, D.C., and a coauthor of Can Public Schools Learn from Private Schools?


See related work on Economic Growth

See more work by Martin Carnoy