Did the Supreme Court make the right decision in upholding school vouchers?
Unfortunately, as is often the case in the educational reform policy arena,
there is a serious disconnect between the issues which need to be dealt with and
the solutions put forth. To that point, the ruling by the Supreme Court on the
Cleveland vouchers program is very disappointing and could prove to be quite
damaging to America’s public and private education system in years to come. Too
many public officials and policy gurus advance vouchers as the “silver bullet”
to improve America’s public schools, but in reality, vouchers may hurt both
public and private schools.
To many, the idea of vouchers may sound good initially but is quickly
deflated when carefully analyzed. Every state, given the choice of vouchers on
state ballot initiatives, has overwhelmingly voted it down. Consider the reality
that approximately 46 million students are currently enrolled in America’s
public elementary and secondary schools. Private and parochial schools
accommodate about 6 million students. A simple mathematical exercise will
immediately point out that the numbers don’t work! In effect, a voucher system,
regardless of the amount of money provided, can only accommodate a minimal
number of public school students. To think of vouchers as a credible solution to
the problems of public education is to disregard most of America’s students. In
Cleveland it proves false by the fact that the majority of students receiving
vouchers were already attending private institutions, with 96% of those
institutions being religious schools.
To be clear, opposition to vouchers does not demean the outstanding hard work
and accomplishments that are evident in our nation’s private and parochial
schools. Rather, this is an issue of fairness, equity and the reality that any
diversion of public funds will negatively affect the majority of public school
students who are left behind.
States are required to provide a free and public education for each child.
The operative words here are free, public and required, and the mandate is a
commitment to access and equity in elementary and secondary education. Most
private and parochial schools use various tests and/or admissions procedures in
selecting students, which, if continued under a publicly funded vouchers system,
would constitute an unfair and unjust situation. Public schools accept all
children, regardless of academic readiness, race, socio-economic status, limited
English proficiency or special education needs. Therein lies the power of the
public system of education – it is truly public!
Over the years, the public education system in this country has fought some
long, hard battles to ensure educational equity for student populations often
ignored and discriminated against. Are private and parochial schools ready to
make the same commitment to educating all students? Are they prepared to be held
accountable for the use of public voucher dollars? A voucher system utilizing
public funds should never be allowed to discriminate against special needs
And what impact will vouchers have on the mission of private and parochial
schools? Most likely, the initial reaction of private and parochial schools to
vouchers would be positive: more students and more fiscal resources. But, it can
be predicted that over time, as more public dollars are spent to support voucher
students, there will be increased pressure for greater public scrutiny and
accountability for these public expenditures. Private and parochial schools are
an important part of the heritage and future of American education. Slowly but
surely, vouchers will force these schools to become less private and less
parochial-—the very reason for their existence.
Proponents of vouchers say that public schools will become more competitive
and more accountable operating within a voucher system that allows students the
option to leave. The reality is that for every public school student that
leaves, districts lose significant dollars that are never replaced. It seems
illogical to suggest that school districts, especially urban districts already
plagued with significant fiscal problems, will improve as public education funds
If our national commitment is to educate all children to high standards, then
our school reform efforts must include strategies and initiatives that are
comprehensive, built upon solid research and designed to serve all the students.
Recent reform efforts that show great promise for all students include:
establishing high academic standards; aligning curriculum and instruction with
established standards and assessments; improving the preparation, induction and
career opportunities for school leaders and teachers along with salary
increases; ensuring high quality pre-school and early childhood education;
increasing parental involvement; implementing rigorous tests to monitor student
progress; holding schools accountable (when supported with the necessary
resources) for improved student achievement; determining consequences for both
successful and failing schools; and financing the poorer school districts in a
more equitable manner.
In summary, vouchers lead us away from the basic American tradition of a
free, quality public education for every student and undermine the kind of
comprehensive, systemic school reform that is working in many parts of the
country right now. No one wants to deny students and parents the right to a
better school system, but silver bullet solutions for small groups of students
is not reform. I remind those who advocate vouchers that the American dream of
equity and excellence in education is intended for all students and not the
select few that a misguided public policy of school vouchers will serve.
Gerald N. Tirozzi, Ph.D., is executive director of the National
Association of Secondary School Principals (NASSP) in Virginia. Dr. Tirozzi was
appointed by President Clinton as Assistant Secretary of Elementary and
Secondary Education, and served in that capacity from 1996 to 1999 at the U.S.
Department of Education. For more information on NASSP, visit