The Voucher Trap

Tammy Johnson says California could learn some lessons from Milwaukee about the racist impact of school vouchers.

By Tammy Johnson Dec 15, 2000

Tammy Johnson says California could learn some lessons from Milwaukee about the racist impact of school vouchers.

On November 7, California voters must decide whether to reject or embrace private school vouchers. The decision will have major repercussions not only for public school students in California, but for many across the nation. Proposition 38 is a ballot initiative that provides a publicly funded voucher to students who wish to attend private schools. A close look at the measure reveals that it will further jeopardize the quality of public education and the future of children of color.

The proposed vouchers will be useless to most families, and will aggravate discrimination against children of color. Proposition 38 only provides a $4,000 voucher, while the median tuition at private schools in the National Association of Independent Schools is $10,300. Few families, especially low-income families of color, will be able to pay the difference. The voucher would, however, subsidize the tuition of affluent private school families.

Since private schools can only accommodate one percent of California’s students, they certainly discriminate–against lower achievers, non-English speakers, students with disciplinary records, and families that can’t foot the bill. Neither Prop. 38 nor existing law make provisions to ensure that these few spaces are equitably distributed.

Double-crossed in Milwaukee

As a community organizer for the last six years in Milwaukee–the national center of the voucher movement–I witnessed the devastating impact of vouchers on the city’s school district. The demand for better facilities, more qualified teachers, and relevant curriculum fell on deaf ears at the school board, which instead spent millions on vouchers. A 1998 report from the Institute for Wisconsin’s Future highlighted this neglect. That year, the district had to educate a student population in which 74 percent were classified as high need/high cost pupils (children with various learning disabilities and special needs), while it dealt with a $22 million loss to the voucher program.

The "mother" of the Milwaukee voucher program, Wisconsin State Rep. Polly Williams (D-Milwaukee), discovered the double-cross too late. Williams, an African American, once traveled the right-wing speaking circuit promoting vouchers as a means for poor families of color to escape underfunded and mismanaged public schools. She later saw her conservative allies discard the safeguards that ensured the program would benefit low-income urban families who need it the most. "They can say what they want," Williams said, "but I’ve never seen a situation where low-income people, when they have to compete in education with people with far more resources, come out equal."

The harsh realities of Milwaukee’s public schools bear out the truths about vouchers. Dropout and suspension rates and achievement gaps remained dismal. Meanwhile, the all-consuming political agenda of voucher proponents drowned out any call for reform. The so-called magic of free market competition created by vouchers among private and public schools turned out to be a miserable failure.

Instead of relieving the burden on public schools, vouchers ended up draining Milwaukee’s school system. In 1998, the resource-starved district lost approximately $4,900 for each student enrolled in a voucher school. The small reduction in public school enrollment that vouchers caused did not reduce the overall cost of educating the majority of students left behind. The district now faces a $32 billion budget deficit.

A small ray of light recently pierced the shadow that vouchers cast on public schools. Parents, students, teachers, and community groups in Milwaukee got together and won increased state funding for a class-size reduction program. Known as Student Achievement Guarantee in Education (SAGE), the program has shown that for an additional $2,000 per student, the achievement gap between black and white students has significantly decreased.

But the voucher movement continues to gain steam, and it is not unique to Milwaukee. Taxpayer-funded private school voucher programs have been established in Cleveland and in the state of Florida. New York City is one of several places where corporate America is fueling the movement by setting up privately funded pilot projects.

Rhetoric v. Reality

I did not leave the voucher debate behind in Milwaukee when I resettled in California. Silicon Valley multi-millionaire, Tim Draper, a crony of former Governor Pete Wilson, pledged to spend $20 million of his own money–and to raise another $20 million from his rich friends–to pass the voucher initiative in California. As we all recall, it was big bucks that backed the anti-immigrant Prop. 187, the anti-affirmative action Prop. 209, and the anti-bilingual education Prop. 227–the proponents of which claimed that their initiatives would benefit people of color. Excuse me if I question Draper’s claim that the voucher initiative will improve the quality of education for all of California’s children.

The rhetoric of voucher proponents is that they will give parents the power to choose where their children will be educated. In practice, the real choice belongs to private schools, which will be able to pick and choose the students they want. Unlike public schools, where there are numerous laws against discrimination, private schools are free to discriminate in many areas. They can legally discriminate on the basis of gender and disability, and they are not required to report on the racial composition of their schools or applicants. There is nothing to hold them accountable if they engage in de facto racial discrimination.

Although research shows that students of color are more likely than their white counterparts to be suspended or expelled from public schools, Prop. 38 does nothing to prevent private schools from using disciplinary records to deny them enrollment. Nationally, almost 75 percent of private schools review discipline records when deciding whether to admit students. And since California’s private schools have space for less than one percent of K-12 students, they have even more reason to screen out applicants of color.

Prop. 38 would also discriminate against immigrant students. In California public schools, 23 percent of students are English learners. However, private schools are under no obligation to accept or educate them. Currently, less than four percent of private schools provide some type of non-English language support.

Proponents argue that the shortcomings of private schools will be set right by the market-driven nature of the voucher system, that parents can simply take their money elsewhere. However, as has been shown in housing, health care, and employment, free market programs don’t work for everyone–they benefit those who are already privileged. The voucher proposal will mainly benefit those who can pay an additional $6,000 to $10,000 per year to send their children to private schools. And it will allow private schools to cherry pick the students they want and leave public schools with less money to educate the students who need the most help.

Real Solutions Needed

If vouchers are not the answer, then what is? What are the parents of children who attend inadequate and unequal public schools to do? Black and Latino parents will tell you that what they really want are better schools, not elitist experiments. A 1996 poll of Californians shows that Asian, Latino, and African American adults are more supportive than whites of increasing funding for schools, providing professional development to teachers, teaching respect for various races and cultures, and providing additional school-based services such as healthcare and after-school programs. What they know is that, done right, reforms work. California recently took a small step in that direction by increasing the state’s education budget by $30.6 billion.

Proposition 38 is not an escape hatch out of California’s struggling urban schools. It is a trap that would keep the vast majority of low-income students and students of color in public schools that are even more debilitated, while wealthier white private school families get a big financial subsidy. Regardless of their intent, the impact of private schools’ admission policies–and of voucher programs in general–will be racist.

But while this is true, we must not stop at just defending public education from privatization. The racial disparities within public schools must be addressed. We must demand a public education system that provides an excellent and equitable education to all children.

Tammy Johnson is national organizer for the ERASE (Expose Racism and Advance School Excellence) Initiative at the Applied Research Center in Oakland, California.