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School Choice Or School Vouchers: Is It Good Or Bad For Public Education?

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Vouchers or Choice? Neither, one, or both? Few topics stir as much debate in the education community as the concept of providing government funded aid or vouchers to parents to send their children to private schools. At it's most basic level, school choice is a movement focused on affording parents the right to choose which school their children attends. This controversial subject is recurrent in many state legislatures, the federal education community and within all education circles in the United States.

The vouchers issue tends to split people into two deeply divided sides Ð'- those who see vouchers as a valuable opportunity for helping needy children escape failing public schools and poverty stricken neighborhoods and those who see vouchers as taking needed money away from public schools. Public support for vouchers is split. A recent Gallup poll suggests that 46 percent of adults favor vouchers initiatives, and 52 percent oppose them.

Funding from a voucher system could flow into two different types of schools: private or public schools. An array of tough questions arises about parent's and student's rights when using public tax dollars for private school. Also at the heart of the controversy is the basic constitutional principal regarding separation of church and state. Some even see vouchers as a threat to the survival of public schools as a whole. Proponents argue that allowing parents of students in low performing schools to transfer to schools with higher test scores will create a competition among schools to develop innovative learning programs in order to retain these students and thus solve the problem of low performance. Based on the free market concept and the principles of competition, the school, operating as a business, must meet the needs of the consumer, parents and students, in order to remain operational. If the school does not meet the need of the students, then parents should have the right to seek better educational opportunities elsewhere. The Center of Education Reform, which supports school choice and vouchers, suggests that competition from choice would foster much needed public school reform. They believe that competition between schools will increase school accountability and in turn, will encourage schools to experiment with different approaches in order to find what works best for the students they serve (Raywid 1992). Supporters also claim that offering parents the right to choose increases parental involvement in schools and awareness of their child's progress (Aguire 2002).

In addition, school choice supporters contend that it helps low-income students. Howard Fuller, Chairman of the of the Black Alliance for Educational Options, stated, "The only people who are trapped in schools that don't work for them or their parents are the poor. We've got to create a way where some of the poorest parents have some of the options" (Garrett, 2001). The more affluent families can choose to buy homes in areas that have very good schools while low income families have few options to escape their plight. Several studies have supported the positive impact of choice programs on low-income families (Greene, 2000).

In addition, there have also been several studies that have shown that students in voucher programs can make significant achievement gains. Greene (2000) and Peterson (2000) focused their research on the Milwaukee and Cleveland school districts that have a voucher program in place. These studies have also indicated that the parents of students who utilize vouchers are more satisfied with every aspect of their child's school experience than the parents who did not have the option of choosing a school (Peterson, 2000). Proponents also contend that voucher programs contribute to the improvement of larger public education systems by fostering market-like competition between schools (Tooley, 2002).

Opponents of the voucher system claim that the research on student achievement gains is contradictory. Studies by Kim Metcalf (1999) of the Indiana Center for Evaluation and John Witte (1999) of the University of Wisconsin-Madison found that in the same two school districts, Milwaukee and Cleveland, students who exercised their option to choose their school performed no better on tests than students who remained in their assigned building. The biggest concern raised by research is the inconclusive nature of the findings about student achievement. The outcomes are also inconsistent on the actual level of parental involvement.

The majority of available research focuses on the voucher programs in Milwaukee and Cleveland. Effects of vouchers on student achievement are, at best, unclear. The state appointment evaluator (Witte, 1999) found achievement of voucher students did not differ from the achievement of public school students. A second analysis of the data by a team from Harvard University and the University of Houston found that students who used vouchers to attended private schools for three or four years scored higher in both math and reading than their public school counterparts. A third study from an independent research team at Princeton University (Rouse, 1997) concluded that the voucher program had a positive effect on math achievement but resulted in no improvement in reading scores. The current research on academic achievement can support either viewpoint. Therefore, one should approach these research findings cautiously and evaluate them rigorously.

While promoters of school choice herald the autonomy it affords parents, opponents question which families will be in the best position to make informed decisions about their children's education. Some researchers are concerned that certain types of parents are more likely to exercise choice and leave their neighborhood schools, reinforcing social-class inequality (Raywid, 1987).

One critic of school choice, Peter Cookson of Columbia University, argues vouchers will cause the system to fail the children who are not lucky enough to remove themselves from a low-performing school and will therefore "pit student against student and family against family in the struggle for educational survival". Opponents also worry about the potential loss of financial support for failing schools. If students move from a failing school in one district to a school in another district, the original district will lose valuable per-pupil funding. The loss of funding at the district level can hurt the already struggling school (Lyons, 2000). Some of the opponents of school choice also question whether vouchers can be successfully implemented, especially in urban systems. Randy Ross, the chairman of the Cross-City Campaign for Urban School Reform in Los Angeles, wrote, "A student's leap from one sinking school will not culminate automatically in a safe landing somewhere

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