The great divide

Feb 23, 2000 at 12:00 am

The Rev. Eddie Edwards doesn’t have much patience for people wanting to blow wind about philosophical issues when it comes to school reform. The way he sees it, he’s dead center in a crisis, watching the youth in his Detroit community as their lives are wasted, even lost, because of the school system’s failure.

And people want to tell him about separation of church and state.

"We’ve got to come out of the box," says Edwards, pastor at the Joy of Jesus ministries in the city’s east-side Ravendale neighborhood. "We have a critical situation here. I’ve been involved in this for over 20 years. My emphasis and passion is to help children. And it’s become apparent to me over the years that public schools need to be reformed, and it’s just not happening fast enough."

Edwards is reaching for a lifeline, and says he’s found one in school vouchers.

As far as he’s concerned, they work. He’s seen it for himself on trips to Milwaukee, where the public schools have been experimenting with vouchers for a decade.

It is the contention of Edwards and other voucher supporters that the plan to fund private secular and religious schools with public money is far from being an attack on public schools. Quite the contrary.

"Creating competition put the sort of external pressure on public schools that’s needed to help them reform," says Edwards. It is a common refrain among voucher supporters.


Just as pervasive is the view among opponents that such a claim is patently "ridiculous." They don’t think you’re going to make schools better by taking away money and creaming off the best students with the most involved parents, putting them in private schools and leaving the rest behind.

Supporters maintain that won’t happen, In fact, says the Mackinac Center’s Joe Overton, there are already examples from charter schools where public schools that initially lost students and funding responded by becoming more sensitive to parental concerns, and by doing so won back significant numbers of kids.

"Yes, they’re taking a financial hit, but that’s causing them to take a closer look a their operations, and whether they are satisfying parental desires, and that is causing them to improve their schools."

Overton, who has spent considerable time debating this issue, easily volleys every criticism hurled his way. But sometimes it is difficult separating the rhetoric from the reality. He laughs, for instance, when the point of limited choice is brought up. Opponents say that parental choice is illusory.

As the American Civil Liberty Union’s Wendy Wagenheim puts it, "It is the schools that do the choosing, not the parents. They accept who they want to accept."

Overton counters that it is not realistic to expect that every student who applies to a private school will be accepted. But, he says, pointing out the obvious about the children of impoverished parents, "Today they don’t have any choice at all."

But how many children will benefit? The private sector infrastructure is finite. New schools are expensive to build. Realistically, how many students in public schools will be accommodated by the private sector? It seems only reasonable to expect large numbers of kids already in private schools to benefit from vouchers. So, for the near term anyway, how realistic is it to expect large numbers of public school students to be able to make the change?

This type of point-counterpoint is emblematic of the debate we will be hearing from now until the election in November.

Dueling studies

The money issue is certainly a valid one. A state analysis estimated that vouchers could initially take from $50 million to $80 million a year from public schools. Critics fear that estimate is terribly low. There are about 220,000 students in Michigan’s private schools. If even one-half of those proved eligible for vouchers – at a cost of $3,100 each – that is a $341 million drain on state coffers without moving a single kid from the public to private sector.

Part of the problem is that vouchers are so new, there’s little empirical evidence one way or another on how well they work.

Even the experience in Milwaukee, where they’ve been in place for a decade, is by no means cut and dried. Dueling studies have drawn different conclusions as to the effectiveness of the programs there. To make matters worse, the initial legislation, which mandated annual evaluations by the University of Wisconsin, expired after five years. When the program was renewed, the yearly evaluations were eliminated, so recent data is hard to come by.

In a 1996 overview of the subject, University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee education professor Alex Molnar wrote about two studies, one conducted by the Carnegie Foundation, that examined a variety of choice programs around the country. The conclusion, wrote Molnar, was that "to the extent choice programs benefited children at all it was the children of better educated parents, that the choice programs have the potential to widen the gap between rich and poor school districts, and that school choice does not necessarily improve student achievement."

On the other hand, observes professor Kenneth Wong, an education reform specialist at the University of Chicago, it looks as if voucher schools perform better when students have been in them for three or four years, but those findings "are open to interpretation."

It does seem that parental satisfaction seems to be higher whether or not performance improves.

The way Molnar sees it, the empirical situation is so murky that "in the absence of clear evidence showing a positive effect on student achievement ... The debate in Wisconsin and elsewhere continue to be driven much more by competing social and political philosophies than research data."

One researcher, he notes, "calls the battle over school choice a struggle over the ‘soul’ of American public education."

In the eyes of the religious right, that statement is not a metaphor. And for those who think they can make sense of all this by relying on simple labels of black vs. white or liberal vs. conservative, forget about it. This is an issue that in many cases shreds the traditional shorthand.

Making rifts

The Rev. Edwards is a case in point. Although he sees, and the polls reflect, a growing preference for vouchers among the inner-city African-American community, it is by no means all encompassing. Heaster Wheeler, head of the Detroit Branch of the NAACP, is diametrically opposed to Edwards on this.

"We need to make the statement loud and clear that if you think neighborhood schools are in trouble now, wait and see what things will be like if vouchers take effect."

He also is insulted that ultraconservative Republicans pushing the voucher plan "are the same people who are fighting against affirmative action." Wheeler asks: "When did they become so concerned about African-Americans?"

Although less pronounced, there is also a rift showing among white liberals on the issue. Most notable is Arthur Levine, the highly respected president of Columbia University Teachers College, who told the Wall Street Journal in 1998:

"Throughout my career, I have been an opponent of school voucher programs. ... However, after much soul-searching, I have reluctantly concluded that a limited school voucher program is now essential for the poorest Americans attending the worst public schools. ... Today, to force children into inadequate schools is to deny them any chance of success. To do so simply on the basis of their parent’s income is a sin."

Levine’s statement shows just how far the debate has shifted. Whatever else may be said about voucher proponents, it must be conceded they have now framed the issue.

Pay close attention during the coming months as this controversy heats up. The Milwaukee voucher program will be pointed to frequently by those on both sides of the issue. And then wait and see if you hear about something called SAGE, an acronym for a statewide Wisconsin effort formerly titled the Student Achievement Guarantee in Education Program. It, too, is an experiment. But instead of bringing divisive social issues to the table, it is an attempt to see how much better students, especially poor African-American students, can perform if class sizes are reduced to a ratio of no more than 15 students per teacher and a rigorous academic curriculum is combined with after-school activities for students and community members. The results so far, report researchers, have been "significant."

And then take notice of the exact issue the Rev. Edwards has little patience for, because the constitutionality of vouchers will certainly be a red-hot topic. Even if the state constitution is changed, where will the U.S. Supreme Court come down on the issue? It appears that an answer will eventually come; an Ohio voucher case that proponents lost at the district court level seems headed for the high court.

Would Michigan’s measure pass muster?

"It’s clearly constitutional," says the Mackinac Center’s Overton.

"It’s clearly a violation of separation of church and state," says the ACLU’s Wagenheim.

Mary Jean Collins, national field director for the liberal group People For the American Way, says she has no doubts that it should be unconstitutional, but looks at a Supreme Court packed with Reagan and Bush appointees and offers, "I think it would be a 5-4 vote. But I’m not so sure which way that 5-4 would go."

Where vote could lead

Starting with its title, the Michigan constitutional amendment proposed by Kids First! Yes! offers more than meets the eye.

Atop petitions signed by an estimated 425,000 people to put the measure on the November ballot, the initiative is described as a "Proposal for guaranteed school funding, teacher testing, and school choice."

It is because of the "school choice" wording that this is commonly referred to as a voucher initiative, providing parents of school-age children $3,100 toward tuition at any private school, religious or secular. Districts where more than one-third of students fail to graduate over a four-year period – about 12 districts statewide – would automatically institute a voucher program.

But the initiative also gives local school boards the option of instituting vouchers. And if signatures are gathered from 10 percent of the number of voters in the previous school board election, voters within a district can vote on vouchers.

Proponents and opponents agree that passing the ballot measure would open the door for the state Legislature to expand it. The Legislature could, theoretically, apply vouchers automatically to all school districts. It could also create a tuition tax credit for individuals and businesses paying for children to attend private schools. Such a plan has been created by the Mackinac Center for Public Policy, a free-market think tank and a member of the Kids First! Yes! coalition. According to an August 1999 letter from the center, should the initiative be approved, the Legislature expected to consider statewide implementation in 2001.