Making the case for school vouchers

By Thomas L. Jipping
web posted October 16, 2000

In November, citizens in many states will not only elect, but also decide important policy issues. This exercise in democracy often invites politically-driven activist judges to undo these measures, not because they are unconstitutional, but because the judges just don't like what the people have done. The school voucher proposal on the Michigan ballot, however, aims at addressing both the opportunity for democracy and the judicial threat at the same time.

School vouchers are good educational policy. Harvard professor Paul Peterson studied voucher programs in three cities and found that not only did test scores improve for those using vouchers to switch from public to private schools, but this benefit was particularly strong for black students. Harvard professor Caroline Hoxby earlier found that using vouchers to find a better education improved test scores, the probability of college education, and future income. The average family income of voucher program students in several cities including Washington, D.C., and New York is less than $16,000.

Nearly two-thirds of Florida's public school teachers say vouchers help prod public education reform. The Wisconsin state auditor noted research showing that "the choice program has actually improved Milwaukee Public Schools' fiscal condition." In 1998, the Buckeye Institute similarly found that educational competition between public and private schools contributes to better public school performance.

Little wonder, then, that the Portrait of America poll by Rasmussen Research found that nearly 60 per cent of public school parents favor vouchers and more than 40 per cent actually say that private schools are best for their children. Even prominent liberals such as former Clinton administration labor secretary Robert Reich, albeit with very different goals in mind, supports a voucher approach.

As with so many other good ideas, though, what legislatures give, judges take away. Voucher opponents lost in the state houses of Wisconsin, Ohio, and Florida and – as is the American way – went instead to the courthouse. The latter two are in litigation even now. Backers of the voucher proposal appearing on the Michigan ballot this fall, however, seek to promote good educational policy but also to eliminate a potential roadblock to its implementation at the same time.

On the policy side, Proposal 1 on the Michigan ballot is targeted not at parents generally, but at parents in districts that graduate less than two-thirds of their students. They could use scholarships worth approximately half of what the state had spent on their children's failing public education for tuition in a better private school. Only about 30 of the state's 557 school districts currently fall in this poor category.

The argument that vouchers "take money away" from public schools has never been true. Just do the math. If half the money spent on a public school child goes with that child to a private school, half the money and no child remains behind in the public school. Most estimates say Michigan spends about $6,600 per public school child. Assuming that one million children are currently in public school and 1 per cent use vouchers to go to a private school, spending on the remaining public school students would rise to $6,633 per child. But the Michigan proposal goes even further by guaranteeing that per student funding will not only never decrease but will actually increase.

On the legal side, Proposal 1 is not simply legislation that would be subject to litigation on constitutional grounds. It is an amendment to the state constitution that eliminates a potent litigation weapon. The Michigan constitution contains perhaps the most restrictive language of any state charter preventing even indirect use of taxpayer money for anything related to religious education. That is, it would prevent not only a direct state subsidy of religious schools, but also any help from the state to poor parents if the parents chose a religious school for their kids. This goes way beyond preventing an "establishment of religion" as the U.S. Constitution says, and restricts both the government's ability to help those in need and the freedom of parents to make good choices for their families.

Eliminating this state constitutional language is critical to opening up educational opportunities in Michigan. I suppose you can count on the ACLU, the very powerful state teacher union in Michigan, and other left-wing groups to challenge the voucher program under the federal constitution. But those planning this education reform effort in Michigan did the right thing by supplementing their policy proposal with some legal insurance to make sure it has a chance to go into effect some day.

Tom Jipping is the director of the Center for Law and Democracy at the Free Congress Foundation.

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