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February 28, 2007
Column #1,331
Advance for March 3, 2007
Utah Makes School Vouchers Universal
by Michael J. McManus

Two weeks ago Utah's governor signed into law the most sweeping school voucher program in America that will, in time, give all students a scholarship to attend schools of their parents' choice. 

"It is the most comprehensive school choice program in the nation," says Dan Lips of the Heritage Foundation.

Utah's poor children (who get free or reduced school lunches) will be eligible for scholarships, as will all kindergarten children next fall. The following year, all first graders plus kindergartners will be eligible as vouchers are phased in. By 2020 all students could receive school vouchers to attend a school of their choice.

The scholarship amounts are determined by family income.  A family of three with a $30,710 income could get a $3,000 voucher. One earning $61,420 could receive $2,000.

The idea for universal school vouchers was first proposed in 1955 by Nobel Laureate economist Milton Friedman as a way to give families the opportunity to shop for the best school for their children, and force schools to compete in offering superior services to attract students.

It is a classic conservative economic proposition favoring competition and choice over the  public school monopoly. It is also one of the few ideas that Republicans have for offering minority students genuine new opportunity. Vouchers also offer a lifeline to preserve parochial schools in cities which have been closing as Catholics have moved to the suburbs.

Dan Curtin of the National Catholic Educational Association, says 6-8 parochial schools in Washington D.C. would have had to close, not just two, if it were not for federally funded vouchers.  Detroit, with no vouchers, closed 21 schools. Finally, taxpayers save money since the vouchers are set at about half the per pupil cost of public education. Washington's program gives $7,000 vouchers while city schools spend $14,000 for miserable education.

Vouchers have been fought wherever they have been introduced by teacher unions on grounds  they siphon off funds to improve public schools and help a few students rather than many. More surprisingly, they've been opposed by the NAACP, though the beneficiaries in Milwaukee, for example, are 96 percent black.

Milwaukee's NAACP charged that vouchers violate the Fourteenth Amendment's equal protection clause, because some parents would choose to send their children to "virtually one-race schools," while "racially separate schools are inherently unequal."

Huh? Only 35 percent of the freshmen who entered public high schools in Milwaukee in 1992, graduated in four years. In one school only 13 percent did. Compare that to Catholic Messmer High School with a 98 percent graduation rate.  Also, many of the private and religious schools in Milwaukee are more integrated than their public counterparts.

No wonder polls reveal 90 percent of the city's African-American parents favor a program that gives 17,000 students, a fifth of the public schools, an opportunity for private education. 

This year 150,000 public school students received vouchers across the nation. What have been the results?

Dr. Jay Green, an endowed professor of educational reform at the University of Arkansas, has conducted or overseen eight studies.  Vouchers are so popular with parents that three times as many apply for them as there are funded spaces. Therefore, Green compares how well students did who got the scholarships vs. those who wanted them but lost in the lottery.  This is  like comparing those receiving a new drug vs. a placebo, the scientific gold standard..

Green says that students receiving scholarships "close the gap between black and white tests scores by a quarter," about 6 to 7 percentile points of the 21 percentile gap.  In Milwaukee,  students did 6 percentile points better on reading after four years and 11 percentile points better in math.  In Washington Catholic inner city schools, 94 percent of second graders are at or above grade level.

Equally important, Green reports, "The public schools rise to the challenge and do better." He found that the competition prompts public schools to improve about 5 percentile points, as in Florida where Gov. Jeb Bush pushed through legislation to give students in failing schools vouchers to exit..

Finally, Green reports that expanded public school choice promotes civic values, such as greater tolerance of those from different backgrounds, less segregation and more volunteering by students to serve others.

Good reasons for every public school system to consider offering vouchers not just to poor students, but to all students based on the Utah model.
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