Who's Eligible for Vouchers?
Student eligibility for vouchers is an important point for policymakers to consider if they are to realize the policy intent of providing options to families with low incomes or children in failing schools. Voucher programs select their students in different ways. The programs in Milwaukee and Cleveland are directed at students who come from low-income families. The mean family income for voucher students in Milwaukee between 1990 and 1994 was $11,300. In Cleveland, students who received vouchers in 1998 came from families with average incomes of $15,800. Students who are eligible for the Florida program must be enrolled in a "failing" school as designated by the state. Similarly, this fall, California voters will decide whether to provide all parents, regardless of financial need or school performance, with a $4,000 a year voucher for nonpublic school tuition. In New Mexico, Governor Gary Johnson is proposing a similar program. Both these programs would also phase in vouchers for students already in private schools.
Private Schools Set Own Admissions Criteria
Students bearing vouchers from even the most generous voucher program, however, can bump up against private school admissions criteria. Admission is typically dependent on personal interviews, grades, and analyses of behavioral patterns. Unless agreements to the contrary are sealed ahead of time, private schools accepting vouchers can refuse students based on academics, gender, disability, national origin, discipline, parent participation, and a range of other characteristics. In a survey of private schools in California, Corwin (1993) found that the majority of Catholic schools require strong test scores and academic records for admission in addition to recommendations from public school principals and sometimes interviews with parents and prospective students. He notes that although Catholic schools enroll a high percentage of minority students, they are students who have successfully passed the screening process.
In its voucher program, Milwaukee adheres to a strict income cap equal to 175 percent of the federal poverty level to determine eligibility of families. It requires participating private schools to accept any voucher student who applies, unless a student’s disability is so severe that the school would have to make major adjustments. If the school has more applicants than open slots, it selects its voucher students by random drawing. Conversely, Cleveland holds its lottery first, after which the winners apply to the private school of their choice. Many participating schools accept students on a first-come, first-served basis without regard to academic records, but the program does not require them to do so. Instead, it gives schools discretion over which students they admit. If some winners don’t get in, their vouchers are given to other students on the program’s waiting list.
A question for policymakers to address is, "Will vouchers be available to eligible families even if their children are already enrolled in private schools?" Policymakers must be clear about the intent for the vouchers in determining eligibility. Both the Milwaukee and Cleveland programs were aimed at allowing low-income public school students to leave low-performing public schools. Only about one-third of Milwaukee’s voucher students and one-fourth of Cleveland’s voucher students took the opportunity afforded by the vouchers to leave the public schools. The remaining voucher students, whose parents were eligible for, and received, vouchers were already enrolled in private schools or were just starting kindergarten (National Education Association and American Federation of Teachers, 1999). This situation raised the question of whether the intent of the voucher programs was realized? Did giving vouchers to students already in private schools deprive other students? Or did the circumstance suggest the vouchers, as instruments of choice or change were less necessary than anticipated?
Access Raises Concerns
Even though the public voucher programs implemented so far are directed to low-income students and students in failing schools, questions of access and equal opportunity are relevant. Studies suggest that families who have better access to information; can afford transportation, learning resources, and uniforms; and place a premium on education are more likely to take advantage of vouchers when they are offered. And again, the research from Milwaukee bears this out. Witte (1997) found that Milwaukee parents who applied for education vouchers for their children were more educated themselves, more involved with their children’s education, and had higher expectations for their children than the average Milwaukee public school parent. Witte’s finding was confirmed in research on the privately funded Horizon voucher program in San Antonio. In that study, mothers of low-income voucher students were three times more likely to have had some college education than mothers of comparable public school students (Martinez, Godwin, and Kemerer, 1996).
Another issue is the number of private schools willing to accept vouchers. In Pensacola, where the Florida program was tested, 80 percent of private schools do not accept vouchers. Witte et al. (1994) found that less than half of the eligible secular private schools participated in Milwaukee’s voucher program.
Not only are the participating private schools few in number, many do not provide the full range of services that students need. The National Center for Education Statistics reports that of private schools in the United States, only a small percentage provide special services for students who do not speak English, need special education, or are gifted (see box on previous page). Witte and colleagues (1994) found that less than one percent of private school students were enrolled in special education programs, in contrast to 12 percent in Milwaukee public schools. This discrepancy of services leads to voucher opponents’ fears that public school classrooms will be left with a higher percentage of students with language, behavioral, and learning problems.
The distance between a student’s home and the nearest participating private school might also undermine a student’s ability to use vouchers. Most private schools are located in urban and suburban communities. According to a survey of all the nation’s private schools conducted by the National Center for Education Statistics (1997), almost half of all private school students attended schools that were located in urban areas. Approximately 40 percent attended schools in an urban fringe or large town. Only 12 percent of students attended private schools in rural communities. Many small and rural communities have no private school alternative.