Commentary | Education

Lessons—New Ingredient in a Voucher Plan

These pieces originally appeared as a weekly column entitled “Lessons” in The New York Times between 1999 and 2003.


New ingredient in a voucher plan

By Richard Rothstein

SEATTLE — An innovative school choice plan here shows how a chasm might be bridged between those in favor of and those opposed to relying on market principles to reform public education.

Like a few other places, Seattle is experimenting with unrestricted parent choice and flexible school design. But it has added an important element. The amount of district money a student brings to a school is based on how hard that student is to educate. In other words, schools are paid more for students who need more help.

Liberal critics of unbridled choice say it causes more segregation and less improvement than expected. Low-income parents may make unsophisticated choices, seeking schools with children like their own. Middle-class parents also favor less diverse student bodies, mistaking homogeneity for excellence. With communities mostly segregated by race and income, schools in middle-class neighborhoods rarely recruit low-income children.

But if such students brought more budgetary dollars, principals might scramble for them. Middle-class schools might then have incentives to enroll the poor.

Federal Title I money already provides extra resources to the most needy schools. But because it usually operates only where poverty is concentrated and barriers to learning are greater, Title I is no incentive for middle-class schools to recruit low-income pupils in manageable numbers. Some advocates say Title I money should follow students even if they attend middle-class schools. The idea has merit, but would spread limited federal dollars too thinly.

So Seattle’s idea of “voucherizing” regular expenditures is a smart move. Pupils with greater needs — because of poverty, limited English or disability — bring more regular district money. Unfortunately, however, the plan here is more show than substance; the differentials are too small to make a difference. A low-income elementary pupil brings only $259 in extra resources. If the increments were bigger, schools enrolling such students could offer more attractive programs to both middle-class and low-income parents.

Seattle, like other cities, is in effect segregated. The white middle class mostly lives north of downtown; lower-income African-Americans mostly live to the south. School segregation has probably increased since the internal voucher program was adopted. If differential bonuses were greater, more integration might occur.

Some southside schools might then be so awash in money, they could create superior programs to attract middle-class pupils. Some northside schools might want to pad budgets by recruiting poorer children.

This does not now happen. Hay Elementary School just north of downtown, for instance, has no reason to recruit low-income students. Their vouchers do not bring enough added money to pay for help such pupils need.

Rather, the school uses its flexibility to attract wealthier families back from private schools. The John Hay Partners, a parent fund-raising group, donates more than $100,000 for smaller classes, tutoring and a math specialist. The school has a full-day kindergarten for which it charges tuition.

Gatzert Elementary on the south side is another story. More than 90 percent of its students are poor, mostly African-American. A third are homeless. With schoolwide Title I money, it also has full-day kindergarten and additional staff. But its extra regular financing from district vouchers totals no more than parent gifts at Hay.

Joseph Olchefske, the superintendent, says added money is less important than principals’ flexibility to design enticing programs. And, he adds, it is no solution to  increase voucher differentials to make low-income students more attractive. Middle-class schools would recruit struggling pupils only if it was profitable. Such children would have to bring more dollars than their added services cost. Then, money for poor children would be used to benefit the middle class and this, Mr. Olchefske believes, would be unfair.

But perhaps such unfairness should be tolerated to correct the greater injustice of segregated schools filled with low-income children and lacking sufficient resources. Mr. Olchefske’s hope that principals’ programmatic flexibility will be enough to close the achievement gap is almost certainly too optimistic.

An adequate voucher for poor children could require twice the dollars that other children now get. Without robbing money from middle-class schools, this will take more financing than Congress, the State of Washington or Seattle taxpayers have in mind.

So for now, Seattle’s weighted student formula is a powerful idea, but without enough money to make it work. Mr. Olchefske’s admirers may conclude, however, that a token start is better than no start at all.

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