Do vouchers deliver where the state fails?

24th January 2003 at 00:00
Schools, Vouchers and the American Public By Terry Moe Brookings Institution Press pound;19.06

The Education Gap: vouchers and urban schools By William G Howell and Paul E Peterson Brookings Institution Press pound;18.42

Revolution at the Margins: the impact of competition on urban school systems By Frederick Hess Brookings Institution pound;28.60 hbk; pound;11.80 pbk

Bridging Liberalism and Multiculturalism in American Education By Rob Reich Chicago Press pound;13.50

The United States combines an abiding faith in the idea of public education with doubts about its practice. For a century or more, the tensions have been growing. Is education a social good or an individual good? What is the right balance between national regulation and local control, or between the school and the parent? How do you resolve the tension between public funding and market forces, or between a common culture and parental choice?

The problems have been clearest in the cities. Economic and ethnic pressures have encouraged all those parents who can move away from city centres to do so. Suburbanisation has left inner-city schools bereft and blighted. Over the past 20 years these have become the battleground - and sometimes the graveyard - of attempts at educational reform. Charter schools, magnet schools and, especially, education vouchers have been tried as ways of creating choice, injecting market disciplines and forcing up standards.

Publicly funded voucher schemes - grants to parents to enable them to buy out of their local public schools - generated sizzling controversy when they were introduced in Milwaukee, Cleveland and Miami. Smaller-scale schemes, essentially scholarships funded by private foundations, have been tried in New York and other cities. How far have they succeeded? On both sides of the debate there is huge interest in this question.

Terry Moe's Schools, Vouchers and the American Public ducks it. Moe, a long-time advocate of voucher schemes, is concerned with their political rather than their educational implications. Drawing on the results of a national opinion survey in 1995, when the Cleveland row was at its fiercest, he acknowledges that Americans are unlikely to abandon the public school system. The main appeal of vouchers, he says, will be to "those who are most disadvantaged under the present system".

In other words, vouchers may tend to reduce social stratification, not (as their critics claim) increase it. For voucher campaigners that's a convenient conclusion, but it finds some support in The Education Gap, the first major evaluation of why privately funded voucher students change schools and what they achieve in comparison with their performance at the public schools they left.

What about the effects of vouchers on public school budgets and enrolment, for example, or on the thriving faith school sector? Howell and Peterson have interesting data on all these factors, but the most complete survey is in Frederick Hess's Revolution at the Margins. This concentrates on the traditional argument for vouchers - that only competition will spur public schools to improve - and finds little evidence in the Milwaukee and Cleveland projects to support it. The real difference is that private schools have limited objectives and can select their intake. Urban school systems serve troubled communities riven by disagreement about what constitutes quality education. By definition, they are political; in self-defence, they are resistant to change. It is possible, Hess concedes, that an educational market will succeed in harnessing self-interest to the public good; it is possible, too, that it won't.

Underlying the voucher debate is a fundamental and very American question - one that multiculturalism is insistently raising. Is there a tension between fostering citizenship and the common good, and individual autonomy and ethnic identity? Increasingly, educational debate - even the voucher debate - is becoming polarised on this basis.

Bridging Liberalism and Multiculturalism in American Education argues that this needn't be the case. Rob Reich draws on philosophy as much as on education to make the case that education must be a public and civic good as well as a private and material one. With reference to vouchers and to the growing issue of home schooling, he makes a cogent, persuasive and - in its optimism - a very American case for maintaining the American commitment to public schooling. If it is to survive the current pressures, he says, both sides must yield. If the voucher debate is anything to go by, it looks as though that might be happening.

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