Muffled by the Din: The Competitive Noneffects of the Cleveland Voucher Program
by Frederick M. Hess & Patrick J. McGuinn — 2002
School choice proponents have hypothesized that market-based education reform will compel traditional public schools to become more effective. We explore this hypothesis by examining how the introduction of the Cleveland voucher experiment in 1995 affected the administration and leadership of the city’s public schools. As of the summer of 2001, the program had produced virtually no visible effects. The voucher program has been relatively unthreatening during this time period because of its small size, its uncertain legal prospects, and certain institutional features—some of which are unique to Cleveland and others that characterize most urban school systems. We conclude that choice-based reform may not spur improvement in urban school systems, at least in the short term or when the programs are heavily restricted. The central lesson of the Cleveland case, however, is not that competition cannot cause urban school systems to change; it is that the timing and degree of such changes will be largely a product of the particular educational, political, and organizational context as well as the design of choice programs themselves.
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