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Charters, Vouchers, and Public Education

reviewed by Carol Ascher - 2003

coverTitle: Charters, Vouchers, and Public Education
Author(s): Paul E. Peterson and David E. Campbell (Editors)
Publisher: Brookings Institution, Washington D.C.
ISBN: 081577026X, Pages: 320, Year: 2001
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Apparently an increasing number of Americans believe that families should be able to choose their children’s elementary and secondary schools.  This belief in the benefits of public school choice, charter schools, and vouchers is the result of both an economic system that stresses competition and choice as universal engines of improvement, and failing schools in low-income neighborhoods of color that make choosing another school seem an immediate solution for some families. Yet if some families rightly view choice as a means of escape, the choice movement has been propelled by promises of systemic school improvement, greater desegregation and equity, and even better preparation for civic life in a democracy among students.


Charters, Vouchers, and Public Education, edited by Paul Peterson and David Campbell, is based on essays first presented at a Program on Education Policy and Governance held at Harvard University in March 2000.  Shortly before then, Peterson aroused controversy in the academic world with his methodologically controversial analyses of voucher programs, and his positive spin on his findings; thus the Harvard conference, as well as the current volume, can be seen as an effort to situate the pro-voucher analyses amongst less controversial scholars. In addition, by including essays on both charter schools and vouchers under the single heading “choice,” Peterson and Campbell dissolve what for some has been an important distinction between reforms like charter schools, that have the potential to strengthen public education, and vouchers that would dismantle public schools as we know them. Indeed, public education as an institution receives only cursory attention in most of the essays in this volume. 


Since the work of several of the contributors has come out as reports or books (generally also with the Brookings Institute), this volume offers less as news than as a synopsis of important issues and players in the field of choice research broadly defined.  All three articles on charter schools are drawn from longer studies: Chester Finn, Bruno Manno and Gregg Vanourek, among the earliest advocates of charter schools, describe the growth of and demand for charter schools, and the satisfaction they generate.  They also argue that charter schools are neither bankrupting school districts, as is sometimes claimed, nor serving a more advantaged population than traditional public schools, and that they are bringing together “in common cause new communities of parents, educators, schoolchildren and civic organizations" (p. 30).  Although they correctly report that there are no definitive data on charter school achievement, Finn, Manno and Vanourek cite a weak national study, as well as several state studies, that show positive or insignificant results.  They rightly conclude that charter schools would be wise to use value-added assessments, a method that is still in a quite nascent stage.


Michael Mintron and David Plank, who have each published full-length studies (Mintron, 2000; Arenson, Plank & Sykes, 1999), use Michigan’s experience with choice and vouchers to critique the idea that changes in public education can be generated or explained by the market alone.  They argue that education, like supermarkets and the airline industry, is affected daily by both private and government policies and practices.  Frederick Hess reiterates this point in an essay on the effects of choice on Milwaukee’s public schools.  According to Hess,  “Trying to assess market effects in isolation from these larger political and organizational considerations risks missing much of the story of school choice” (p. 164).


Edward Fiske and Helen Ladd draw on their New Zealand research on Tomorrow’s Schools, more fully developed in When Schools Compete: A Cautionary Tale , to offer several lessons for charter schools. First, national, state, and local governments use their powers of funding and accountability to assert their traditional control over schools.  Second, since parents tend to move their children from schools serving predominantly low-income minority children to schools serving more advantaged students, the latter soon become oversubscribed, with the result that the schools, rather than parents, become choosers. Third, while an inspectorate can thwart innovation by “sending signals about what it expects the schools to do” (p.76), the charter movement should look to New Zealand’s inspectorate system for an alternate model of accountability. 


Mintron and Plank argue optimistically that emerging evidence is making it “harder for proponents and opponents to make sweeping claims for or against market arrangements in the delivery of public schooling” (p. 45).  Yet the four essays on vouchers suggest that, where experience remains limited, and the research scarce and carried out largely by voucher proponents, it is possible to make sweeping claims.  A more balanced review of vouchers might have included the work of John Witte on Milwaukee’s voucher program, or discussions by Patrick McEwen, Gary Natriello, Lee Mitgang and Christopher Connell, collected in Privatizing Education, edited by Henry Levin (Westview, 2001). Indeed, from a reading this book alone, one might conclude that, by contrast with charter schools, vouchers are a more clear-cut positive policy option.


Jay Greene, whose imaginative research has all been directed to proving the benefits of instituting a voucher policy, argues his points in a tone that is vituperative and strident.  “One would never know it from the media coverage,” Green claims, “but the findings of school choice studies, at least on some questions, have been uniformly positive” (p. 84). For Greene, research (including his own) shows both consumer satisfaction and increased test scores for voucher recipients.  Greene claims that vouchers also benefit those who do not actively choose a school.  According to his research in Florida, “those schools that faced the imminent prospect of vouchers if they did not improve achieved test scores gains that were more than twice as large as the gains realized by other schools in the state” (p. 92). He reports Caroline Hoxby’s finding, based on a complex econometric model, that metropolitan areas with more available choices (including private schools) produce higher student performance at lower costs than do metropolitan areas with fewer choices.  He also cites his own far-fetched finding that states with more choices have significantly higher test scores. Having found that private school students are more likely than public school students to be in racially heterogeneous classrooms, Greene ignores the economic and social correlates of housing; he concludes that vouchers remove the education-related incentives for high-income households to separate themselves from poor neighborhoods, and so “make it easier for poorer families to move into those areas” (p. 96).


Terry Moe’s essay, drawn from Schools, Vouchers, and the American Public , also counters fears that vouchers will further segregate our society by race and social class. Having surveyed 4,700 parents around the country, Moe argues that, because low-income parents of color disproportionately want private school choice, an expansion of choice should moderate the social biases, as inner-city parents disproportionately seek private options in education.


Three articles discuss how vouchers might positively affect democratic values. Greene reviews several studies (including his own) suggesting that private school students are more likely than public school students to evidence tolerance.  Analyzing responses to the 1996 National Household Education Survey, David Campbell argues that Catholic school students show greater capacity for civic engagement, political knowledge, and political tolerance than students in “assigned” or non-choice public schools.  This is important, since many voucher students use their vouchers in Catholic schools.  In addition, Patrick Wolf, Jay Greene, Brett Kleitz, and Kristina Thalhammer find that, among introductory government students at four Texas universities, students whose previous education took place exclusively in private secular schools exhibit greater tolerance (as evidenced by least liked groups and willingness to permit constitutionally guaranteed activities) than those students whose schooling took place in public schools. 


As he does in Choosing Equality: School Choice, the Constitution, and Civil Society , Joseph Viteritti argues that providing parents with an opportunity to attend private or religious schools with public support is permissible under the First Amendment, and consistent with the principles of equality and political pluralism underlying the American constitution.


The section on vouchers concludes with a study by the editors, Peterson and Campbell, in collaboration with William Howell and Patrick Wolf, on the effects on student test scores of privately sponsored school vouchers in New York City, Dayton, Ohio and Washington, D.C.   This complicated analysis across sites attempts to address some of the methodological concerns raised by critics of earlier work on the subject. However, the impenetrable style hindered my ability to judge the research.


Three interesting studies all suggest that market forces alone do not explain what happens to the remaining public schools and the school system as a whole as a result of introducing charter schools and vouchers.  Hess describes the real and symbolic changes instituted in Milwaukee’s public school system over time as a result of the charter school and voucher “threat.” A study of five districts by Paul Teske, Mark Schneider, Jack Buckley and Sara Clark suggests that  “the attitude of school district leadership to charter schools is not a direct function of the loss of market share” (p. 194), but is related to such issues as whether the district is experiencing growth and/or space problems and the predisposition of the district leadership. 


Finally, Frederick Hess, Robert Maranto and Scott Milliman use data from Arizona to present one of the most interesting findings in the collection: that the reactions of traditional public schools to competition from charter schools depends on the culture of the school.  While schools with “relatively uncooperative cultures” experienced no changes in leadership behavior, in schools with relatively cooperative cultures, principals encouraged experimentation in teaching, shielded teachers from outside pressure, consulted with staff, and facilitated the upgrading of the school’s curriculum. Since cooperative schools tend to be the more effective schools, the authors rightly suggest that competition may introduce a  “‘rich get richer’ dynamic” (p. 233). Given that the intransigence of low-performing schools has been a major motive for choice, this study offers a serious counter to those who believe that the market will lead to system-wide improvement.


Peterson and Campbell maintain that their collection shows that, “both the wildest hopes and darkest fears of the political protagonists are seriously overstated,” (p. 2). That may be so. But the volume also makes clear that there is no unbiased social science research. Indeed, partisan scholarship and spin are particularly troubling in this high-stakes policy debate in which scholarship is too often compromised by ideological commitments.

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record Volume 105 Number 1, 2003, p. 128-133
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 10914, Date Accessed: 10/23/2021 7:30:12 AM

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