Vouchers Win Praise by Parents, not by Kids

This article, in the NY Times last Friday, certainly does raise a lot of questions about the federally mandated voucher program in Washington, D.C.

Here's an overview in quotes from the article:

"A Republican-controlled Congress established the voucher program, for Grades K through 12, in 2004. Over the last three years it has provided scholarships of up to $7,500 annually to cover tuition, fees and transportation expenses for each of about 1,800 poor children to attend private school. About 90 percent of the participating students have been African-American, and an additional 9 percent Hispanic, according to the Congressionally mandated study.

The results were eagerly awaited, because studies of similar programs elsewhere, in cities including Cleveland, Milwaukee and Dayton, had not produced definitive conclusions about whether vouchers significantly increased the academic achievement of students who previously attended public schools."


"Students who participated in the first year of the District of Columbia’s federally financed school voucher program did not show significantly higher math or reading achievement, but their parents were satisfied anyway, viewing the private schools they attended at taxpayer expense as safer and better than public schools, according to an Education Department study released yesterday. The students themselves painted a picture different from that of their parents, though, feeling neither more satisfied nor safer than did students attending public schools."


"Parents of students using the vouchers were significantly more likely to give the school their child attended a grade of A or B than were parents of students rejected by the lottery, the study found. Joseph P. Viteritti, a professor of public policy at Hunter College, said those findings were consistent with studies of other voucher programs.
“To me,” Mr. Viteritti said, “it just means that parents are happy to have a choice.”

But Clive R. Belfield, an economics professor at the City University of New York who has studied voucher programs, noted the new report’s finding that of the 1,027 students who entered the Washington program in the fall of 2004, only 788 remained in it by the fall of 2006.

“That’s quite a bit of attrition,” Mr. Belfield said. “If parents are so satisfied, why have about 20 percent of the students left the program?”"

These are interesting questions because it almost points to a parent's ability to feel some control over their child's schooling seems to be almost as important as the child actually doing better. Maybe those parents felt so hopeless about their child's school that any change was viewed as better. But what about the student viewpoint? It seems like that would be important in creating change. If the student changed schools and still felt unsafe or felt the teaching wasn't working, that's just as big an issue as parents' concerns.

It's interesting for SPS because we do have so much choice and I think parents, for better or worse, do feel a measure of control over where their child goes to school. We're likely to hear more about this (although it's probably way down on the agenda) during the Presidential election as most Republicans want charters and vouchers. I have no doubt that the issue of charters in Washington State is likely to come back to the ballot in the next couple of years.


Roy Smith said…
This article raises or touches upon a profusion of issues relating to how parents perceive schools, how their children perceive schools, what the realities actually are, and how well these three areas do or don't correlate with each other.

To me, this study and others like it are just more nails in the coffin of support for vouchers and charter schools, but since that movement has never seemed to me to much be concerned about actual data anyway, it probably won't significantly impact the debate.
Anonymous said…
New to the school system. I'm curious as to why parents are against vouchers here in Seattle. As a middle class parent. If I could get a half scholorship at a private school, and the district voucher worth $7000, my kids could go to Lakeside of the such. I would LOVE that! Why do other states do vouchers and not WA. Especially since we rank so low nationally in our public schools. F in math, 46th in class size, etc. I would think parents who can't afford to buy there way out would love a hand from vouchers. I'm guessing that more people leaving the district will weaken the existing schools? Perhaps not though. Perhaps, the district would be forced to face the fact that all people (not just rich) have options, and will bail if they don't provide adequate otions.
Roy Smith said…
Read the article. It is yet to be demonstrated (by any rigorous study that I have heard of, not just this one) that vouchers actually affect academic performance in a significant positive way. If the research doesn't support the existence of positive outcomes, then why do it?

For me personally, there is also a philosophical issue. The way I see it, the public really ought to have a say in what is being done in education that is paid for with taxpayer dollars. Vouchers remove most or all of the public control over how taxpayer money is spent.
It's the same thing with charters. There are few great charters in a few states, many failures and mostly medicore schools. They do no better than public schools (study after study says this) so why bring on an added layer of confusion?

Yes, kids leaving weaken the schools by taking their dollars with them. What would largely be left are many special ed kids and, possibly, immigrant kids (whose parents may not understand how to access vouchers). These are more challenging students to educate but public education, unlike private, has to take all comers.

It is interesting that many of those parents who did take the vouchers ending up leaving anyway.

Lakeside is more than $14,000, by the way.
Anonymous said…
Just for my own education - what is the difference between the New School's model and a charter school? What's the difference between a school like McGilvra, where private (parent/corp match/grant) funds buy down class size, hire teachers, etc., and PTAs carry a lot of weight when it comes to decision-making - what's the difference between that model and a charter school?

I'm not trying to be provocative, only to understand - I know that charters are NOT vouchers, but am not as sure about what they are.
Anonymous said…
Roy, I'm not challenging the article, as I know know nothing about schools or families that they studied. However, locally, in the circumstances of my family, I guarantee that my children would do much much better at Bush or Lakeside than Leschi. Hands down.
Anonymous said…
I have absolutely no control over how my tax dollars are being spent at my school currently. I understand your philosophical differences, but don't see them realistically.
Anonymous said…
continued from above. Case in point is the I-728 money. We voted. It passed. Where's the benefit. Class size is actually bigger now than before I-728 passed. So, do we really have control of how our tax $$$ are spent?? I don't even have a say at my own school, much less at district, state, Fed level.

On the surface vouchers sound appealing to me, as do charters. Will do more research, and edcate myself better.
Charters exist in about 40 states. Charter law is different in all of them. Some states (NY for example) limit the numbers of charters that can be granted while other states like Arizona have a much wider latitude on their numbers. Likewise, some states are very specific on who can open a charter; qualifications, expectations on proving progress, etc.

Charters tend to have more freedom and flexibility in how they deliver academics such as longer days, longer school year, etc. A private school generally cannot become a charter school. California requires that teachers of all “core classes” be certified. Schools then hire “classified” staff to teach non-core classes. Some amount of turnover is to be expected, particularly during a school’s first few years. What is important is to ascertain the reasons behind the turnover (e.g., poor recruiting, lack of professional development, weak administration). Another discussion to have with the school surrounds the lessons learned from any turnover and the adjustments made to bring about a more stable environment. Charters also usually have a board of directors who may or may not be qualified to evaluate an educational program. Charters have to accept all students and cannot charge tuition. (However, they can say they have no resources/program for special ed/special needs students thereby eliminating those students from applying.)

There are differences and similiarities between New School and a charter school. New School, an outside entity, designed its program and drives its program with its own money. A charter does that as well (although many charters don't have their own money and depend solely on the money generated from student enrollment as well as district upkeep of facilities). New School also has some power over its hires (particularly the principal) and charters have sole power over their hires. I'm not sure how union issues work; again, it is likely to vary from state to state.

McGilvra has to answer to the district. A charter has to answer to the chartering agency which may or may not be a district. McGilvra would not have final say on their principal. As to their PTA having decision-making power, I'd say that is rare in a PTA. PTAs may have input but I haven't seen one that actually can have as much power (or more) than a principal/BLT.

(Public disclosure; I did some cut and paste on some of this from various websites on charters, both pro and con.) I would also say from my research that many charter schools sound a lot like many of our SPS alternative schools in their programming focuses.

From my research, charters do no better than public schools so what you do is add another layer of complexity and confusion to a district. If I had to choose, I'd choose charters over vouchers because charters, by their very name, come with a timeline and if they don't succeed, they are closed. (There was one such closure of a major charter system in California that left 4,000 students without schools and the public school system scrambling to find room for them after the charter system went defunct.) I don't want my tax dollars to support solely private schools which is what happens with vouchers.

But the point has been made about giving a district a wake-up call if vouchers/charters come into play. That could be true. I'd have to do some research to see if districts do improve when charters/vouchers are approved. I think it likely that the districts become demoralized both mentally and financially and continue to weaken if they are already weak.
Roy Smith said…
As a general rule, private schools that accept vouchers are not allowed to charge additional money for tuition. This is to prevent vouchers from disproportionately benefiting middle and upper class families that could make up the tuition differential.

What this means is that the Lakeside School and the Bush School would likely not accept vouchers even were they to be available in Washington (I can't see them volunteering to provide a $15,000 to 20,000/year education for $7,500/year). The schools that do end up accepting vouchers are generally parochial schools, religious schools, and lower-tier private schools (some of which have been specifically created to profit from voucher programs).

I have no doubt that most students would benefit from attending Lakeside, the Bush School, or other schools of that nature. The differences in funding/student and the fact that they don't have to accept all comers practically guarantees this. However, it is unlikely that you will be able to use a voucher there in any event.
Gouda said…
New School Parent and former PTA president here...

A charter school is one in which a private organization takes public dollars to educate children. The New School is the opposite: it adds dollars to a public school. It is not unlike a PTA that raises money and adds it to the pot.

At The New School, there is a private foundation that gives money to the school. That foundation provides a decreasing grant to the school to support:
1. provide a fully funded pre-k program in a neighborhood that has higher percentages of poverty
2. lower class sizes

There are some smaller items, but the bulk of the grant are the two items listed above.

The New School is, in fact, a new school. All new schools would work to figure out what the program will look like. That is not unique to charter schools. The foundation does not drive that curriculum. In fact, I am on the planning committee for the middle school, and the Foundation has not said anything about what should or should not be a part of the middle school.

In regards to principal hiring, the foundation does get to participate in the interview process, but they do not have a final say in the principal selection process. We just went through the process again this year and we had to do everything the exact same way that everyone else had to do it. The final choice was made by CAO and Sup.

Oh, small side note... 96% of 1st graders and 98% of 2nd graders passed the DRA! Meaning, THE PROGRAM WORKS!
Anonymous said…
Hi Everyone-

I have been doing national research on charter schools for more than 10 years. Do you mind if I clear up some things?

1. Vouchers vs. charters: Vouchers are *private* schools in every way. Parents (usually low income) simply receive public dollars to attend in the form of a "voucher". There is little or no public oversight. Charters are PUBLIC schools. They are funded with public dollars and are held to the same health, safety and civil rights rules as other public schools. They are held, by school districts or other public agencies, to at least the same performance standards as other public schools, often to much higher standards.

2. Charters vs other public schools: Most essential difference: charters operate on a performance agreement with a school district or another public agency (eg university or state board of education). The agreement spells out performance goals and consequences for failing to meet those goals. The state law specifies whether the schools will have autonomy over staffing (staff opt out of district collective bargaining unit), whether it will have full control over budget, and who can operate the school (a non profit or, existing public school staff etc).

3. State laws differ dramatically in how they define all these terms of the charter. Charter schools also vary dramatically in the types of instruction they offer. Quality varies too, mainly in relation to the quality of district oversight.

Districts and state boards that see charters as a way to attract entrepreneurial leadership and teachers, as a way to bring effective school designs to high needs students, and as a way to have truly performance-based schools have seen great academic and other benefit (eg New York, Indianapolis, and Chicago). Happy to point to evidence.

4. Nationally, charters tend to serve about the same proportions of special need students, minority, and low-income students as other urban public schools.

I agree that there are varied study results, as is true with most topics. But I cannot agree with Melissa that the evidence shows that charters "do no better than other public schools" or that charters are "mostly mediocre." The *quality* of charter studies is at least as varied as the types of charter schools. Assertions about the national body of evidence on charters should be read with a very skeptical eye.

Finally, nationally and in most states, charters enjoy bipartisan support and are becoming a very popular and mainstream urban public school option. The Clintons and Obama are charter fans. Vouchers tend to have Republican support, though many minority groups have also lent support.

I'm not arguing for or against charters/vouchers here. Just want to get the facts right. Let's at least be clear that charters and vouchers are very different proposals.

PS - The voucher study that sparked this discussion was based on ONE year of data, guys. Such a study should never lead one to nails-in-coffin discussions. Vouchers in DC may not be improving student outcomes, but this study does not prove that.

Happy to answer questions: rlake@u.washington.edu, www.ncsrp.org

Robin Lake
University of Washington
Beth Bakeman said…

Thanks for posting the charter/voucher information.

I used to be adamantly opposed to both charters and vouchers, but recently have decided that, given the right constraints and oversight, I would like to see Washington try charter schools.

I believe the potential for innovation/experimentation could yield some tangible benefits for kids and, possibly, teachers and staff. During my classes this year, I was struck by how many teachers are unhappy with the constraints currently imposed by a combination of school bureaucracy and unions.

During my research, I also learned about some inspiring charter schools, such as the Green Dot Schools in California, which are delivering impressive academic results for children and creating a work environment (with its own union) that teachers and staff enjoy.

I don't think we should be so afraid of change in our public school system that we close off all options.
Charlie Mas said…
It is important to note that just because you have the money (either from your own resources or from a voucher) to enroll your child at Lakeside or Bush, that doesn't mean that your child will be allowed to enroll at Lakeside or Bush. Talk about your lack of predictability in enrollment, a student's application to a private school does not in any way guarantee that student's acceptance at all - particularly at the ones with strong reputations for academics.

You may be assured of access to other private schools with less competitive access, but I wouldn't presume that your child would be better served at them than at any number of public schools.
Unlike a PTA, New School foundation gave the money to the school. That is a huge difference in funding. No school raises $1M+ dollars. It is not the same thing.

New School may be evolving its curriculum but it did not start with a parent vision, it started with New School's vision of education. Would you deny that?

Again, New School Foundation board members get to privately interview principal candidates (it's in the MOU) and that is a privilege not granted to any other group in SPS. So no, their principal is not the "exact" same as everyone else's.

I applaud the results from New School (and I'll be interested to see how the first 4th grade WASL results turn out). I applaud public/private partnerships. But to say New School is like any other school is disingenious. I think if you put $1M+ in every elementary school you'd see better results across the board.

About charters, Robin makes good points. I'd still put my statement about charters, overall, doing no better than public schools against any data.
Anonymous said…
Yes, as Roy says, there is a system in place to make sure the middle class don't benefit. And, sadly he is right. There always seems to be something making it such that the middle class don't benefit. Can't get scholorships to private schools because you make too much, however that "too much" is much to little to afford the exorbinant tuition of most private schools. The poor get scholorships, the rich can just afford the tuition. The middle class get stuck. And, it's not just a private school scenario, it plays out in many ways for the middle class. We (middle class) are still very lucky though.
Anonymous said…
I wish Seattle would at least explore options like Charter Schools and vouchers. The "culture of no" is so strong in Seattle. We are so resistent to change. I, like Beth was anti-charter schools for all of the right philosophcal reasons. But, after looking at my dismal middle school choices, and the new assignment plan restrictions, I wish I had more options. If Charters come up for vote again, I will be voting in favor. I think Seattle could do it right! I bet they would pass this time. Voters are fed up with the state of this district, and especially fed up about the differences in equity between N and S end schools. Charter may just be the equitable answer.
Anonymous said…
Robin, thank you for posting the information on charter schools. It's always good to have expert voices in the discussion.

Someone on the thread mentioned that charter schools in some other cities looked pretty similar to alternative schools in Seattle. I'd love to hear your thoughts on that.

I'm also very curious on your take on the differences between
1) Charter Schools
2) Seattle's Alternative/Non-traditional schools (like Nova, Montessori at Graham Hill, ORCA, Summit, AS1, etc)
3) Magnet schools. What seattle has seems a lot like the magnet schools we had where I grew up.
4) Selective programs in public schools, where students have to be admitted based on tests or auditions or portfolio evaluations. APP and Spectrum are only ones I'm aware of in Seattle, but I've heard people suggesting that perhaps the Jazz Band at Garfield, Drama at Roosevelt, and some other arts programs should consider audition-based admissions.

Anonymous said…
Off subject a bit, but I hear that TAF has succesfully found a home in the Fed Way school district. Congratuations to them. What a loss for Seattle. How very sad.

Trish, good luck to you and TAF in Fed. Way!!!!
Anonymous said…
98112 asked for my thoughts on the differences between charters and alternative/magnet schools:

Charters are opportunities for individuals to propose promising/proven instructional programs. Many such proposals are of the "progressive" ilk, like Orca and other of our alternative programs. But charter schools cover the full range of instruction from very traditional programs to schools like the Minnesota New Country School that has no "classes," only project-based learning. Many alternative/progressive schools choose to "go charter" because the central mandates (usually a district's curriculum and staffing assignments) do not, in their view, serve their students' needs.

What differentiates charters from alternatives, then? First, the school operates on a performance contract so that the school must have a mission or goal (e.g., all students will go on to college etc). And that contract would be reviewed every 3-5 years to see if the school was meeting its goals. So Orca would have to probably have to explain its math scores and develop a plan for addressing them in order to earn contract renewal. Satisfied parents would be necessary but not be sufficient.

You can think of it as a deal: your school gets greater autonomy to meet its students unique needs, but in exchange, you must prove results.

Second, as is true with many magnet schools, charters cannot be selective in admissions. Many magnets accept only high performing kids. Charters at least have to take all comers. many authorizers also require charter to actively work to recruit disenfranchised students/families. other authorizers only approve charter proposals from schools that want to serve the neediest students.

Chartering is really an opportunity for communities and government agencies to do something different. It opens up possibilities and then it's up to those communities to make those opportunities work. In 15 years, the movement has learned a lot about what it takes to oversee schools on the basis of performance and continuous improvement. Whether you like the idea or not, you have to have a lot of faith in school boards to think we can radically improve our schools without changing up some of the ground rules.

Hope that helps clarify.
Charlie Mas said…
Strictly speaking, every school in Seattle Public Schools is supposed to meet performance standards such as those that Robin describes for Charters.

Please see for reference District Policy
C45.00, School Effectiveness Measures and Review.

It reads, in part:

"It is the policy of the Seattle School District to develop and maintain a high level of effectiveness in each of its schools and programs as determined by multiple measures of improvement and in relation to established standards. A review of all schools and programs will be conducted annually using a process and criteria as approved by the Superintendent. Support and intervention will be provided for schools and programs identified as not meeting the criteria, with those failing to improve subject to progressive interventions / sanctions as determined by the Superintendent."

This is not something just for Charters - it is for every Seattle Public School and every SPS program. Unfortunately, the Superintendent has not fulfilled this Policy in any meaningful way and the Board has been unable (or unwilling) to compel him to do so.
Anonymous said…
Oh my goodness, if this is what charter's are all about I love it.

"You can think of it as a deal: your school gets greater autonomy to meet its students unique needs, but in exchange, you must prove results."

This makes sooooo much sense to me.
Anonymous said…
Charlie, they are supposed to but they do not. I don't care about written codes and policies, as we all know the district does poorly at upholding them. Look at schools like AS1 with the "democratic" school policies. The students decide whether they want to take math or not. I'm sure that this is not in the districts EALR's or curriculum guidelines, but this and sooooo any other infractions happen all the time. Never addressed. Then the school hides behind the philospphy of being anti-WASL, so they are never held accountable. It doesn't add up to "district plicies" at work. Now, the charter school idea of "more autonomy in ecange for results" that makes much more sense to me.
Roy Smith said…
Can anybody provide me some specifics about this class at AS#1 that allegedly voted to not study math for a year? I haven't found anybody actually associated with the school that claims any knowledge of it, and I am beginning to suspect that this story is an urban legend.
Roy Smith said…
Charlie, they are supposed to but they do not. I don't care about written codes and policies, as we all know the district does poorly at upholding them.

So how will the district be more effective at upholding written codes and policies or at enforcing the operational contracts when regulating charter schools?
Anonymous said…
Roy, I assure you it is no urban legend. I went to tour the school with my son. The principal at the time (not sure if he's still there), Ernie Seevers said it to our whole tour group. We were in a 3-8th grade mix class, and one of the mothers asked if the kids went to a separate math class (like most middle schools) or if the classroom teacher taught math. We were told by Ernie, that this particular class had voted to not take math. But assured us that the kids who wanted to take it could take it as an elective. It was that principals first or second year at the school, so I don't know if he was mistaken? But I assure you he said it.
Anonymous said…

By the way we toured AS1 two years ago, so it would have been about that time, in case you talk with Ernie.
Roy Smith said…
I'll talk to Ernie and the teacher involved (there's only one 3-8 core) and get their take on it. I'm guessing that there is more to the story.
Anonymous said…
How in the world do you tailor classroom instruction to meet the needs of 3-8th graders at the same time? Does it work at AS1?
Roy Smith said…
A wide age range is considerably more demanding on the teacher, and many teachers don't want to deal with that wide an age range, even though most at AS1 have 2 or 3 grades in one class. The one class with that wide an age range is an anamoly even at AS1, but the feedback the teacher gets is pretty uniformly positive. Some teachers can make it work, though I would not be surprised at all if they are very few and far between.

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