For Parents Seeking a Choice, Charter Schools Prove More Popular Than Vouchers
For Parents Seeking a Choice, Charter Schools Prove More Popular Than Vouchers
By: Sam Dillon
Date: July 13, 2005
About the Author: Sam Dillon won the Pulitzer Prize for reporting on the drug trade in Mexico; he currently writes on issues related to education for the New York Times.
In 1988, then-president of the union American Federation of Teachers, Albert Shanker, called for massive reform in public education via the establishment of a "charter" school, a school designed by teachers or other educators that involves a contract with local authorities. The charter school movement began in 1991 in Minnesota with the passage of a law permitting such schools to open; the first, City Academy in St. Paul, received a charter exempting the school from local or state regulations, to allow the school to provide an alternative educational experience for students while being supported by taxpayer dollars.
A charter school can be public or private, though in common terms a charter school denotes a publicly funded school that operates outside of standard government regulations. Each charter school must outline its educational goals to justify exemption from standard local and state regulation; failure to meet these goals over an established period of time can lead to the closing of the charter school.
Unlike private schools, public charter schools receive taxpayer dollars. In some states, such as Massachusetts, charter schools are allotted the same per-pupil amount granted to traditional public schools, but typically do not receive additional funds for buildings and capital expenses; therefore, the charter school must operate under a much tighter budget than a traditional public school. From the establishment of the City Academy of St. Paul in 1992 through the year 2006, the charter school movement has grown to include more than 3,600 schools in more than forty U.S. states.
Charter schools can be organized around educational philosophies such as Waldorf, Montessori, or Reggio Emilia; around particular concentrations such as drama and performing arts, math and science, or foreign language; or managed by for-profit institutions such as SABIS, Inc. or The Edison Project.
At the same time that charter schools gained in popularity, the concept of vouchers—a set amount of money per pupil to be used by parents at the school of choice, public or private—became popular as well. School choice, which allows parents to send their child to any public school within their state, has been available in some states such as Vermont since the late 1800s. However, the current voucher movement proposes that state and local tax dollars would be portable and could be spent on any school—including religious private schools.
As noted in the primary source, school choice, vouchers, and charter schools provide a wide array of opportunities for parents and students in some areas, a sharp change from the traditional school policies of previous decades.
CLEVELAND—When Ohio enacted a pilot program of school vouchers here a decade ago, David Brennan, an Ohio businessman, quickly founded two schools for voucher students.
Three years later, with voucher programs under attack, Mr. Brennan closed the schools and reopened them as charter schools, another educational experiment gaining momentum at the time.
That decision reflected the fortunes of the two parallel school choice movements that once shared the cutting edge of the nation's school reform efforts. Charter schools, which are publicly financed but privately administered, have proliferated across the nation, with 3,300 such schools now educating nearly one million students in 40 states. In contrast, voucher programs, which use taxpayer funds to pay tuition at private schools, serve only about 36,000 students in Ohio, Florida, Wisconsin and Washington, D.C.
"Vouchers are moving slowly," said Paul T. Hill, a professor who studies school choice as director of the University of Washington's Center on Reinventing Public Education. "The American people don't want a complete free market in education. They want some government oversight of taxpayer-funded schools."
Last month voucher advocates achieved a rare victory when the Republican-dominated Ohio legislature created 14,000 new publicly financed "scholarships" or vouchers to allow students in failing public schools to attend private schools. That will make Ohio's voucher program, which began in 1996 with the Cleveland pilot program, the largest in the country. Earlier this spring the Utah Legislature also created a small voucher program that will allow disabled students to study at private schools at public expense.
But those twin victories were the meager results from the most ambitious legislative campaign yet by voucher advocates. Republicans introduced proposals in more than 30 legislatures for voucher or tuition tax credits, an arrangement under which parents receive a subsidy for children's private schooling through the tax code rather than as a direct grant. Vouchers were defeated in Florida, South Carolina, Texas, Indiana and Missouri.
Still, in the view of voucher proponents, the legislative sessions brought significant advances, and they are celebrating, especially because this is the 50th anniversary of the 1955 essay in which University of Chicago economist Milton Friedman suggested the use of vouchers.
In an interview, Dr. Friedman, now 93, said he believed that vouchers would eventually become more widespread than charter schools. But he acknowledged disappointment with vouchers' modest growth. "My personal belief is that the rapid expansion of charter schools will be a short-lived phenomenon, because they are only a halfway solution," Dr. Friedman said.
Many voucher students attend parochial schools like St. Agatha-St. Aloysius, housed in a crumbling brick hulk of a building on Cleveland's East Side. The neighborhood has changed much, from mostly Irish-American to mostly black, but the school, where Sister Sandra Soho has been a teacher or principal for 35 years, has not. Boys wear white shirts and ties, shelves in the basement library are stocked with trophies won by teams a half-century ago, discipline is strict and daily homework is a given.
Charter schools here and elsewhere encompass a range of curriculums and styles. The several Hope Academies in Cleveland, managed by Mr. Brennan's company, follow a back-to-basics approach. Some charter schools, like the City Day Community School in Dayton, are intimate academies. Others are technology-rich, where students take notes in class on computers.
Legislative debates over voucher programs and charter schools have tended to become fierce political brawls. "The entire educational establishment—the unions, the administrators, the school boards—is opposed to vouchers," said Kent Grusendorf, a Republican Texas state representative who chairs the House Education Committee.
Several Republican lawmakers voted with Democrats to defeat a voucher proposal in Texas last month. "This is one area where management and unions work in perfect unison," Mr. Grusendorf said.
The nation's first voucher program and its first charter schools began at about the same time. In 1990, Wisconsin enacted the first voucher program, in Milwaukee. A year later, Minnesota voted the nation's first charter school law. Many legislatures approved charter schools because they seemed less radical and aroused less opposition than vouchers, said Clint Bolick, president of the Alliance for School Choice, a Phoenix-based group.
"Charters are glasnost and vouchers are perestroika," Mr. Bolick said, referring to Mikhail Gorbachev's twin reform policies in the Soviet Union, the former a halfway measure of openness, the latter a more radical restructuring. "The educational establishment has been willing to allow charters in some states just to forestall vouchers."
As an example, he cited Arizona, where in 1995 law-makers came within a few votes of enacting a broad voucher program. Instead, the Legislature passed a law that has made it easier to create charter schools there than anywhere else in the nation. Arizona now has 500 charter schools, but no voucher program. This year, the Legislature enacted a tuition tax credit, but Gov. Janet Napolitano, a Democrat, vetoed it.
Voters got a chance to give their opinions on voucher programs in 2000, when proponents succeeded in getting initiatives on the ballot in California and Michigan. That year voucher programs got much positive publicity when George W. Bush spoke in favor of them during his presidential campaign. But voters overwhelmingly rejected the two state proposals that November.
Ohio launched its pilot voucher program in Cleveland in 1996, offering taxpayer-financed "scholarships" to about 2,000 students. By this past school year, the program had grown to about 5,600 students attending 44 private schools.
Also over the past decade, more than 200 charter schools have been started in Ohio. Mr. Brennan, the businessman who opened and then closed the two voucher schools in Cleveland, today runs 34 profit-making charter schools across Ohio.
The Cleveland voucher program has become quite popular, especially with black parents like Andrea Holland. Black children make up about half of the city's voucher school students.
Ms. Holland, who runs an electrical contracting business with her husband, enrolled their son Jonathan, 13, at St. Agatha-St. Aloysius parochial school two years ago, transferring him from a public elementary school where he had faced bullying, she said.
"I'm not otherwise able, like rich folks, to take my kid out and put him into a private school," Ms. Holland said. "But with this program I can afford to."
Kim Metcalf, an education researcher who conducted a nine-year study of the Cleveland voucher program, concluded that average achievement levels of Cleveland's voucher students were in some instances significantly higher, and were never lower, than those of students in the Cleveland public schools. In contrast, achievement levels at most of Cleveland's charter schools were somewhat lower than in Cleveland's traditional public schools with similar student populations, according to a 2003 study by Ohio's Legislative Office of Education Oversight, a nonpartisan agency.
Because voucher programs divert tax dollars from public to private schools that are not subject to the same government accountability measures—standardized tests, for example—both national teachers' unions, the American Federation of Teachers and the National Education Association, oppose them. Officially, at least, the unions support charter schools, as long as they are governed by nonprofit groups, are held accountable for student achievement and meet other criteria. In New York City, the United Federation of Teachers is working to start its own charter schools.
In states like Ohio that permit private companies to govern whole chains of charter schools, the unions have fought them bitterly.
"Charters and vouchers are equal on our agenda," said Tom Mooney, the president of the Ohio Federation of Teachers. "We consider charters more insidious right now, because they've grown larger, but vouchers could grow, too."
The Cleveland experiment, initiated in 1996, was hailed by voucher proponents who viewed the program not only as a free market tool but also as an opportunity for parents to have a true choice in education, without the limits of public education. Critics of vouchers, such as the American Federation of Teachers and other teachers' unions, claim that vouchers violate the separation of church and state when applied to religious schools, deprive public schools of needed tax dollars, and send students into schools with less oversight than is present in the public schools.
As charter schools grow in popularity, families with school-age children face intense competition for limited slots. Since the inception of the charter school program in the United States, more than four hundred charter schools have closed as a result of not meeting stated goals. Achievement standards in charter schools are uneven; a National Education Association report found that students in charter schools with licensed teachers scored higher on achievement tests than students in charter schools with unlicensed teachers. The NEA and other teachers' unions conditionally support charter schools but reject vouchers.
The 2001 No Child Left Behind act, which requires standardized testing for all public school children in the United States in grades three through eight, has led to a greater push for charter schools as well. Many parents and educators, concerned about the growing "teach to the test" mentality that is fostered by the NCLB, seek opportunities outside the traditional school structure; charter schools provide a publicly funded method for using public education for innovation while circumventing NCLB. Vouchers offer this same opportunity if parents select private schools that are not required to follow NCLB; the impact of NCLB remains an unknown as the public school system experiences government-driven reform and choice-driven change at the same time.
Mondale, Sarah. School: The Story of American Public Education. Boston: Beacon Press, 2002.
No Child Left Behind?: The Politics and Practice of School Accountability, edited by Paul E. Peterson and Martin R. West. Washington, D.C.: Brookings Institution Press, 2003.
Pulliam, John D. and James J. Van Patten. History of Education in America. Upper Saddle River, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, 2002.
United States Department of Education. "Evaluation of the Public Charter Schools Program: Final Report." <http://www.ed.gov/rschstat/eval/choice/pcsp-final/index.html> (accessed June 11, 2006).
United States Department of Education. "Overview of Education in the United States." <http://www.ed.gov/offices/ OUS/PES/int_over_k12.html#finance> (accessed June 11, 2006).
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