Another Phony Argument Against School Vouchers Bites the Dust

Commentary by Pete du Pont

We can lay to rest another of the education establishment's specious arguments against school vouchers: that the private schools will skim off the best students, leaving the public schools with the others.

A real-life experiment now going on in Texas shows that it isn't the best and brightest who are leaving the public schools. Rather, it's those who aren't doing all that well in the classroom.

Last year the privately funded CEO Horizon Project offered full tuition scholarships to any child in San Antonio's Edgewood Independent School District eligible for the federal free or reduced-price lunch program - and that's 93 percent of the district's 14,000 students - who wanted to go to a private or public school elsewhere. Now, after the first semester of the project, a check on the 566 students who transferred shows that many of those carrying "B" averages in the public schools failed to pass the Texas Assessment of Academic Skills tests in the same subjects, and most of the transferring students performed below average on a nationally normed academic achievement test designed to gauge their baseline academic standing.

In the words of Fritz Steiger, president of the sponsoring Children's Educational Opportunity Foundation (known as CEO America), "The early results indicate that children who need help the most are the ones taking advantage of the program."

That stands to reason. If a child is doing well in a school, whether public or private, parents aren't likely to be motivated to change. One reason many affluent families have been lukewarm to proposals to offer tax-funded school vouchers is that they're reasonably satisfied with their own public schools. Many times they live in a particular school district because of the schools - and have the resources to move or to send their children to private schools if they choose. Those are the choices that less affluent families generally don't have - choices the Horizon project and other voucher programs are trying to make available.

The Horizon Project actually provided scholarships to 837 students living in the Edgewood district, but only the 566 had been attending Edgewood schools. Another 166 were already in private schools - and 105 more who got the vouchers lived in the Edgewood district but their families had been using false addresses so they could attend a public school in another district.

Predictably, the teachers' union has responded by criticizing those who have helped these children get a better chance at an education. "Private vouchers hurt public schools," wrote Bob Chase, president of the National Education Association. Chase's philosophy seems to be, never mind the children's needs, we don't want any competition for our monopoly.

But Chase is wrong anyway. Private vouchers don't hurt public schools. Look at Edgewood if you doubt it. The Edgewood public schools are indeed improving - and the Horizon project is helping speed up the process. The school board president told Investor's Business Daily earlier this year, "It's not that we weren't aware that we needed to make changes, but (the Horizon Project) does put added pressure on us. We need to make sure residents choose Edgewood schools first."

The Edgewood district got competitive. It started inviting students from other districts to come to Edgewood schools - and apparently got a couple of hundred new students that way. Interestingly, at the time the project was announced Robert Aguirre said he hoped that kind of competition would result. Aguirre, a San Antonio businessman who grew up in the Edgewood area, heads the Horizon project.

Chase and others keep complaining that the Horizon project is costing public schools $6 million in aid because of lost students. They're wrong about that, too. Edgewood did lose more than 1,000 students from last school year to this one, but almost half of the losses resulted from the closing of a public housing project.

CEO America has pledged $50 million with which to continue the Horizon project for 10 years, and hopes research over that period will answer questions about the effects - good, bad or neutral - of voucher programs on Edgewood, its students and their families. A research team from Mathematica Policy Research, Inc., Harvard University and the Tomas Rivera Policy Institute at the University of Texas at Austin says it will study "the political and instructional implications" of the project. But the research team won't get any cooperation from the public school district.

The reason? "I am concerned that we can't control conclusions drawn by outside organizations," said Superintendent Dolores Munoz.

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The National Center for Policy Analysis is a public policy research institute founded in 1983 and internationally known for its studies on public policy issues.