Jan 1, 2001
Two prominent reforms proposed to improve education are the use of "vouchers"-publicly funded scholarships that students may use for private-school tuition-and the creation of "charter schools"-schools of choice that are funded by public money but operate autonomously, outside the traditional system of public-school governance. Vouchers and charter schools both represent the leading edge of the movement to promote parental choice in education, and they present similar challenges for the traditional system of government-operated schools. Supporters of these proposals have great hopes that the proposals will provide significant benefits for the education of the nation's children, and opponents have large fears about what the proposals will do. In Rhetoric Versus Reality: What We Know and What We Need to Know About Vouchers and Charter Schools, Brian Gill, Michael Timpane, Karen Ross, and Dominic Brewer conclude that neither the hopes nor the fears have yet been realized and that many key questions remain unanswered.
The authors examine available evidence on vouchers and charter schools on five dimensions that represent the basic goals of the educational system:
While further research and experimentation are needed to fully assess vouchers and charter schools along these dimensions, the available evidence points to several considerations for policymakers who are designing such programs.
The authors find that many of the important empirical questions about voucher and charter schools have not been answered, and because most of these programs have been operating for only a short time, none of these questions has been answered definitively. Current findings include the following:
Small experimental, privately funded voucher programs suggest that African-American students may receive a modest achievement benefit after one or two years in the programs (Figure 1). The exact reasons for this benefit, however, remain unknown. Children of other racial groups in voucher schools have shown no consistent evidence of academic benefit or harm.
Charter-school achievement results are mixed. In Arizona, charter schools seem to be outperforming conventional public schools in reading and possibly in math. In Texas, charter schools that focus specifically on students at risk for poor academic performance show an achievement advantage over conventional public schools, but other charter schools perform slightly worse than conventional public schools. An examination of newly opened charter schools in Michigan indicates no difference from conventional public schools in terms of achievement effects in one tested grade (grade 7), while conventional public schools outperform charters in the other tested grade (grade 4). Meanwhile, the studies in both Arizona and Texas suggest that achievement effects in charter schools improve after the first year of operation.
The long-term effects of voucher and charter programs remain unknown. And perhaps the most important unknown is how voucher and charter programs will affect the achievement of the large majority of students who remain in conventional public schools. Either positive or negative effects are theoretically possible, but to date there is no good evidence on this crucial issue.
For a variety of reasons, of which academic achievement is but one, large numbers of parents want the choices that voucher and charter programs afford. In virtually all the voucher and charter programs studied, parents report high satisfaction with their children's schools (Figure 2 shows voucher results). It is unknown, however, whether voucher and charter programs can be scaled up to provide a range of desirable choices for large numbers of families.
Some targeted programs with income qualifications have placed low-income, low-achieving, and minority students in voucher schools. Most choice programs, however, whether voucher or charter, have done less well in extending access to students with disabilities or with poorly educated parents. Programs that subsidize private-school tuition via income-tax benefits favor middle- and upper-income families.
In highly segregated communities, targeted voucher programs may modestly increase racial integration by placing minority children into voucher schools that have a smaller proportion of minority students. Limited evidence suggests that most charter schools have racial distributions that fall within the range of distributions of local public schools. Evidence from other nations, however, suggests that large-scale unregulated choice programs would likely lead to greater stratification. Studies of existing U.S. voucher and charter programs (which are usually regulated rather than unregulated) have lacked sufficient data to provide definitive answers about the effects of the programs on integration. Dynamic analyses that consider both the schools students attend and the schools they would likely attend in the absence of such programs are needed.
Almost no research has investigated the effects of voucher and charter schools on civic socialization. The few studies that compare civic socialization in public and private schools provide limited evidence that is suggestive of what might be achieved in voucher and charter programs, namely, that existing private schools are not, on average, any worse than public schools at socializing citizens.
Most of the available evidence on voucher and charter schools comes from relatively small programs. The implications of this evidence for larger programs are unclear. Larger programs might exacerbate the weaknesses and fail to produce the benefits seen in small-scale programs, or they might produce systemic benefits that are achievable only on a large scale. More research is needed to determine the effects of variations in the scale of voucher and charter programs.
More generally, the specifics of policy design are likely to have large effects: Not all voucher and charter programs are alike, and different programs will produce different outcomes. Rhetoric Versus Reality offers recommendations for policymakers who seek to maximize the benefits and minimize the harm associated with voucher and charter programs. These recommendations include the following:
Some tradeoffs between desired outcomes may be necessary. Admission regulations, for example, may ensure equitable access but may also reduce the number of schools willing to participate in voucher or charter programs. Fortunately, value tradeoffs are not always necessary; a single policy recommendation may serve several purposes. Allowing existing private schools to participate in voucher and charter programs, for example, may promote not only academic achievement but also racial/ethnic integration and the supply of schools available for families to choose among.
The available evidence on voucher and charter programs does not provide a final judgment about their value. At the current scale of such programs, many questions cannot be answered, and some questions that can be answered, such as those related to integration and civic socialization, have not been adequately researched. The final analysis of voucher and charter programs will await more rigorous research and experimentation.