The Education Gap: Vouchers and Urban Schools / Edition 1

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While the merits of vouchers have been the subject of intense public debate in recent years, there has been very little available evidence upon which to gauge their efficacy. The first publicly funded voucher plan involving private schools wasn't established until 1990 in Milwaukee; before then, the only data on school choice came from a small, poorly designed program in California.

Voucher programs grew dramatically in the latter half of the 1990s. In 2000, about 60,000 students participated in seventy-one programs, most privately funded. This growth is now providing researchers with the ability to measure the impact of vouchers for the first time in multiple cities.

The Education Gap is the first book to gather a significant body of data on vouchers in multiple locations, and it reveals startling new evidence that voucher programs benefit African-American students more than participants from other ethnic groups.

To explain this phenomenon, the authors point out that residential selection is the most common form of school choice available in American public education today. Since this process is likely to leave African Americans in the worst public schools, new forms of choice directed toward low-income families are most likely to benefit black students.

The authors examine the effects of school vouchers on test scores, parental satisfaction, parent-school communications, and political tolerance among students and parents participating in four pilot programs in New York City; Dayton, Ohio; Washington, D.C.; the Edgewood school district in San Antonio; and a program that offered vouchers to 40,000 low-income families nationwide. Though the programs operated in a wide variety of settings, the findings were surprisingly consistent. After two years, African-American students who used vouchers to switch from public to private schools scored substantially better on math and reading tests. By contrast, no significant positive effects on the test scores of other ethnic groups were detected.

While parents in all ethnic groups were generally more supportive of private education, African-American parents expressed particularly high enthusiasm for the private schools their children attended. The authors also report information on the kinds of students and families who take advantage of a voucher opportunity, allowing them to seewhether only the "best and brightest" public school students were able to take advantage of school voucher programs.

The results documented in The Education Gap shed new light on the effects of school vouchers on students in poor, urban environments. This information will be important to policymakers, scholars, and citizens are they continue to search for ways to improve education in urban areas.

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Editorial Reviews

Howell (political science, U. of Wisconsin-Madison) and Peterson (government, Harvard U.) present the results and analysis of a massive study examining how voucher programs affect students' educational experiences and the impact of such programs, finding signs that vouchers may help close the nationwide achievement gap between African American and white students. Annotation c. Book News, Inc., Portland, OR (
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780815702146
  • Publisher: Brookings Institution Press
  • Publication date: 8/28/2002
  • Edition description: New Edition
  • Edition number: 1
  • Pages: 275
  • Product dimensions: 6.00 (w) x 8.90 (h) x 0.90 (d)

Meet the Author

William G. Howell is an associate professor in the Government Department at Harvard University and deputy director of the Program on Education Policy and Governance at Harvard. Paul E. Peterson is the Henry Lee Shattuck Professor of Government at Harvard, the director of PEPG, and a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution. He is author or editor of numerous books, including The Education Gap: Vouchers and Urban Schools, with William G. Howell (Brookings, 2004 and 2006). He is coeditor (with Martin West) of No Child Left Behind? The Practice and Politics of School Accountability (Brookings, 2003).

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Read an Excerpt

The Education Gap
Vouchers and Urban Schools

By William G. Howell, Paul E. Peterson with Patrick J. Wolf and David E. Campbell

Brookings Institution Press

Copyright © 2001 Brookings Institution Press.
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 0815702140

Chapter One

School Choice and
American Democracy

Liberty, Equality, Education—the very woof of America's social fabric. All three had been spun into sturdy strands by the time the Constitution was ratified, laid down after the Civil War, and tightened by twentieth-century political discourse and social practice. Yet the tapestry that history has woven over and under these strands, though rich and colorful, remains unfinished, very much a work in progress.

    The strongest—and greatest—of these strands is liberty. It was for liberty that a revolution was fought, a civil war waged, and a cold war endured. Early on, Americans freed themselves from rigid social hierarchies, excessive government constraints, and the compulsory practice of religion. They created both a democratic polity and a dynamic economy of unmatched size and strength. It is no wonder that John Rawls, arguably the greatest American political philosopher of the twentieth century, placed liberty at the core of his theory of justice. In a just society, Rawls says, "each person is to have an equal right to the most extensive basic liberty compatible with a similar liberty for others." The most powerful political slogans convey the same message: "Give me liberty or give me death," "Free at last," "A woman's right to choose."

    The concept of political equality is almost as deeply embedded in American belief and practice. The American pilgrims spoke of equality before God. The Declaration of Independence called not only for the right to life and liberty but also to the "pursuit of happiness," a marvelously ambiguous phrase that nonetheless hints at some notion of equality of opportunity. The Constitution conferred an institutional structure on those revolutionary ideals. Later, Thomas Jefferson gave them a material basis by purchasing the Louisiana Territory, opening up new opportunities by extending westward an agrarian republic of small, independent farmers. Under the Fourteenth Amendment to the Constitution, enacted after the Civil War to guarantee equal protection before the law, the concept of political equality was eventually enlarged to include minorities, women, and disabled individuals.

    In some sense, though, inequalities are unavoidable. We cannot all jump as high as Michael Jordan; we cannot all speak as eloquently as Maya Angelou; nor can we all boast the intellect of Stephen Hawkins. Because of this, we cannot all partake in the rewards that these talented individuals enjoy. Which inequalities are acceptable and which require some kind of state correction remain a staple of public debate.

    According to Rawls, a just society may tolerate inequalities that improve the lives of those who are the worst off. Rawls's "difference principle" stipulates that "social and economic inequalities are to be arranged so that they are both (a) to the greatest benefit of the least advantaged and (b) attached to offices and positions open to all under conditions of fair equality of opportunity." 3 The difference principle focuses on the welfare of the least advantaged, but it still tolerates vast differences in well-being. Even as technological change has improved the living standards of the poor, it has magnified the wealth of the privileged. The consequence? During both the nineteenth century and the closing decades of the twentieth, the welfare of the worst off steadily improved, while income inequality grew unabated. So, as the twenty-first century dawned, differences in income and wealth were wider in the United States than in most other industrial democracies.

    For the most part, Americans have not felt much urgency about correcting such inequalities. The size of the American welfare state pales by comparison with that of most of its European counterparts. U.S. citizens do not have access to a state-run health-care system, nor do the unemployed receive benefits comparable to those of their peers abroad. U.S. taxpayers pay on average only one-third of their income to the government, while many Europeans pay as much as 40 to 50 percent. When Americans speak of equality, they speak mainly of equal opportunity. Each citizen has a right to the pursuit of happiness, not a guarantee of its realization. As long as the starting line in the economic race is clearly drawn, those who can run fast or are lucky enough to find shortcuts may dash unrestrained to the finish line, well ahead of their competitors.

Equality, Education, and Race

American policymakers have settled on education as a primary tool to promote and protect the concept of equal opportunity. Though the U.S. Constitution does not mention education, the subject was very much on the mind of the nation's founders. John Adams, author of the Massachusetts constitution, inserted a paragraph requiring legislators "to cherish the interests of literature and the sciences, and all seminaries of them, especially the university at Cambridge, public schools, and grammar schools in the towns; to encourage private societies and public institutions." The Northwest Ordinance, enacted in 1787, affirmed that "religion, morality and knowledge, being necessary to good government and the happiness of mankind, schools and the means of education shall forever be encouraged." Judging by his tombstone inscription, Jefferson took more pride in founding the University of Virginia than he did in serving two terms as the nation's third president. Years later, the Freedmen's Bureau provided the rudiments of education to former slaves. And it was a case involving equality of education (Brown v. Board of Education) that launched the civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s.

    Yet education's historical contribution to equal opportunity has been ambiguous at best. Although education for students between the ages of six and sixteen is now virtually universal, its quality varies markedly. Blacks and whites continue to attend very different schools. As late as 1996, for instance, approximately 70 percent of blacks remained in predominantly minority schools. Education budgets also vary dramatically from state to state. In 1997 Connecticut and New Jersey spent $8,600 and $9,600 per enrolled pupil, respectively, while Mississippi and Utah got by on $4,000 and $3,800. Within states, disparities among districts can be just as large. Even within big cities, more experienced teachers gravitate to more desirable schools, where they are better paid. The most disturbing gaps concern student achievement. Children of educated and well-to-do parents consistently outperform those from less advantaged backgrounds. A half-century after Brown v. Board of Education, the test scores of blacks and whites remain, on average, strikingly dissimilar—in technical language, differing by approximately one standard deviation, a statistical measure indicating that the average white student scores as high as an African American student who ranks among the top third of his or her racial group.

    The differences in the test scores of blacks and whites have deep roots. Before the Civil War, very few slaves were taught to read. The Freedmen's Bureau opened schools for former slaves a few years after the war, but when Reconstruction ended in 1876, the responsibility for educating African Americans devolved to white southerners more interested in perpetuating the racial status quo than in enhancing the region's human capital. The first black high school in the South was not constructed until the 1920s. Nationwide, only 6 percent of young black adults in 1920 had received a high school education, compared with 22 percent of white adults of the same age. Nearly 45 percent of young black adults had less than five years of elementary school, compared with 13 percent of whites of comparable age.

    Between 1910 and 1970, the percentage of African Americans living outside the South increased steadily. With the move northward came new opportunities. High school completion rates among young black adults jumped from 12 percent in 1940 to 58 percent in 1970 and, if official statistics are to be believed, continued upward to 88 percent by 1998. But while educational attainment rates have improved, school quality has lagged behind. Most blacks continue to attend predominantly minority schools that have a greater incidence of violence and fewer opportunities to participate in extracurricular activities than their predominantly white counterparts.

    Despite the transformations wrought by the civil rights movement, many schools today remain just as segregated as they were three decades ago. According to one study, 69 percent of African Americans attended predominantly minority schools in 1997, a 5-point increase since 1973. For Hispanics, the increase was even steeper-from 57 percent to 75 percent.

    The problems have not been confined to the South, the initial focus of both the civil rights movement and federal judicial and administrative efforts to integrate schools and neighborhoods. When civil rights activists turned their attention to Chicago and other cities of the North, they encountered strenuous opposition, and this time they lacked the backing of federal judges and marshals. The legal focal point was the predominantly African American Detroit public school system and the predominantly white suburban schools that surrounded it. Civil rights groups contended that the division was no less unconstitutional than the segregation outlawed in the South. But in 1974, in Milliken v. Bradley, the Supreme Court distinguished de facto segregation in the North from de jure segregation in the South. Suburban school districts in the North had never practiced the legalized racial segregation of the South; the segregation that had occurred was simply the result of families' private choices about whether to live in cities or suburbs. The Court ruled that the Constitution did not require integration across district lines, and further integration of northern schools subsequently stumbled to a halt.

    If schools do a decent job of promoting equal opportunity, one would expect early gaps in the test scores of blacks and whites to attenuate over time. In fact, there is little sign that this happens. According to one careful analysis, test-score gaps increase as children progress through school: "About half of the total black-white math and reading gap at the end of high school can be attributed to the fact that ... blacks learn less than whites who enter school with similar initial skills." Nor do family background characteristics account for all the differences. During the 1990s, when black children were growing up in better-educated families, their test scores continued to fall, and the gap between blacks and whites continued to widen.

    The economic benefits of eliminating the gap in test scores are substantial. As Christopher Jencks and Meredith Phillips have pointed out, young adult blacks in 1993 who scored above the median on test scores earned fully 96 percent as much as their white peers. The wage gap remained larger for blacks with lower test scores, but even those scoring between the 30th and the 50th percentile earned 84 percent of the amount earned by whites with similar scores. (By contrast, in 1964 these blacks earned only 62 percent of the income of similar whites.) In other words, a key, perhaps the key, to solving the gross inequalities between blacks and whites in the Unites States is to narrow the racial gap in educational achievement.

Education and Liberty

While education may be a cornerstone of a free society, it remains compulsory for most children between the ages of six and sixteen. Other than the requirements to pay taxes and to register for military service at age 18, it is one of the few duties that the U.S. government imposes on its citizens. Americans need not vote, fill out census cards, notify the government of their address, or obtain a national registration card—but they must see that their children are schooled.

    To do so, most Americans send their children to the public schools assigned to them by their local government. That is striking when one considers the emphasis that Americans place on the principle of freedom of choice in other areas. High school graduates choose their university, even though the government provides grants, loans, and tax breaks to defray the costs. Preschool services are tax deductible, but families can choose their care provider. Although the federal government pays the lion's share of Medicare costs, beneficiaries choose their doctors and hospitals. Yet when it comes to sending a child to primary or secondary public school, families—especially poor families—have not been allowed the prerogative to choose.

Origins and Development of Public Schools

Contrary to common belief, compulsory public education did not originate with the liberal ideals expressed during the American Revolution. The Land Ordinance of 1785 did set aside one section of land in sixteen for "the maintenance of public schools within the said township." But rather than signifying state operation, the word "public" simply implied communal instruction outside the home. Benjamin Rush, an early advocate of public education, made that explicit when he proposed that "free, public" schools, funded in part by parental fees, be organized so that "children of the same religious sect and nation may be educated as much as possible together." Thomas Paine went further. In The Rights of Man, Paine proposed compulsory, publicly financed education but recommended vouchers so that parents would have a choice of schools. To ensure compliance, "the ministers of every ... denomination [would] certify ... that the duty is performed." As late as the 1830s, state-funded schools in Connecticut still charged tuition.

    Not until the 1840s did public schools become synonymous with state-funded and state-operated schools. The man usually credited with founding public education as we now know it in the United States, Horace Mann, a Massachusetts secretary of education and practicing Unitarian, expressed great concern about the papist superstitions of immigrants pouring into American cities. "How shall the rising generation be brought under purer moral influences," he asked, so that "when they become men, they will surpass their predecessors, both in the soundness of their speculations and in the rectitude of their practice?" His answer, the public school, won the curious praise of the Congregationalist journal, the New Englander: "These schools draw in the children of alien parentage with others, and assimilate them to the native born .... So they grow up with the state, of the state and for the state."

    Although public schools originally were designed to impart a moral education to new immigrants, they quickly became an integral feature of American democracy. Locally elected school boards, whose members shared a single-minded commitment to education, were a key factor in their expansion. Unlike most other local governments, school boards had just one specific public responsibility and therefore one distinct mission: to promote public education. Many of the boards could collect taxes, and all had the power to campaign on behalf of local schools. The boards won widespread public support, in part because quality schools became bragging points for those eager to attract new residents to their growing communities.

    The U.S. educational system soon became the world's largest. By 1910, more than three-quarters of the adult population had attended elementary school for at least five years, despite the fact that undereducated immigrants continued to pour out of Ellis Island. A secondary-education system quickly emerged, and by 1940 nearly 40 percent of young adults had graduated from high school. Even as late as 1985, 84 percent of sixteen-year-olds in the United States attended high school, compared with 67 percent of their peers in France, 52 percent in Germany, 42 percent in the Netherlands, and 31 percent in Denmark. Not until the 1990s did high school completion rates in these countries surpass those in the United States.

    Southern schools, it is worth noting, lagged considerably behind U.S. national trends. During the antebellum period, most young people in the South received little formal education. While public schools flourished in other parts of the country, the Civil War and Reconstruction left the southern states despoiled and demoralized. Even today, educational attainment in the South—among whites as well as blacks—trails well behind that in other parts of the country. Only 65 percent of whites in Kentucky had a high-school diploma in 1990, compared with 77 percent of whites in Ohio, just across the Ohio River. And only 67 percent of adults in Arkansas had a high-school diploma, compared with 78 percent of those in the similarly rural but midwestern state of South Dakota.


Excerpted from The Education Gap by William G. Howell, Paul E. Peterson with Patrick J. Wolf and David E. Campbell. Copyright © 2001 by Brookings Institution Press. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

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Table of Contents

Preface xi
Acknowledgments xvii
1 School Choice and American Democracy 1
2 Evaluating Voucher Programs 28
3 Seeking and Using a Voucher 56
4 Attending Urban Schools 90
5 Social Consequences 114
6 The Urban Test Score Gap 140
7 Satisfaction with Urban Schools 168
8 Vouchers and Urban Schools 185
Appendixes 209
Notes 225
Index 267
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