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Event Transcript
October 26,1999


Mayorsí Education Summit

HENRY OLSEN: Our last panel is a question. ďAre Vouchers Part of the Answer?Ē We are going to have two Mayors, a journalist, Matt Miller, and Darlene Romfo speaking. Our moderator will give you more information and set the stage for the voucher and city school question. He is Dr. Joseph Viteritti, a professor at New York University who is also affiliated with Manhattan Institute. He is the author of a new book, Choosing Equality: School Choice, the Constitution and Civil Society, published by the Brookings Institution and available if you would like to speak with Mr. Viteritti afterwards.

DR. JOSEPH VITERITTI: We are here to talk about vouchers, so you can ask as many questions later about them as you choose. Iíd first like to start by complimenting the conference organizers in naming this panel ďAre Vouchers Part of The Answer?Ē I think it represents maturation on our part about this issue. We no longer feel compelled to say that if you institute vouchers it would save everybodyís kid from here on in.

We can look at it in a more incremental way and see it as part of a larger movement. Of course, if itís part of the answer, that begs what the question is. I like to think of the question as, ďHow do we go about providing opportunities for children who, year after year, have not gotten a fair shake or decent education out of their regular public schools?Ē

Increasingly over the last 10 years, the choice movement has been a part of that answer. The choice movement has many components. This morning my friend, Bruno Manno, chaired a panel on charter schools and we heard that discussed pretty extensively by the Mayor of Washington a little while ago. Charter schools are a form of public school choice.

More recently, weíve seen experiments in choice where weíve had voucher programs that were publicly supported and weíve seen experiments in choice where we had a great variety of voucher programs that were privately supported. We would dare to say that a good part of the body of research that we have, on voucher programs and choice programs, today, comes from these private industries.

Just to give you an update on where we are, we now have 36 states in this country and the District of Columbia that have charter school laws, and the number continues to grow. There are about 1400 charter schools in the country now. We have three publicly supported voucher programs. The first was enacted in Wisconsin and is in place in Milwaukee and there are about 8,000 kids attending school under its auspices today.

It has survived a challenge in the Wisconsin courts and the Supreme Court of the United States declined to grant certiorari to those who appealed the decision of the Wisconsin Supreme Court. So it stands and itís relatively out of trouble I think, although, Mayor Norquist can tell us about that a little later.

Thereís also a voucher program in place thatís publicly supported in the state of Ohio. There are approximately 4000 kids attending voucher schools in Ohio. That program is in deep trouble legally because it has been challenged. It has survived a challenge all the way through the Ohio Supreme Court, but it is being challenged in Federal court and the day before school was supposed to open this year, a federal judge in his wisdom decided that he was going to close this program down.

There was a very strong reaction both editorially and publicly to that decision, and heís put that on hold until he has time to think it through. Then heíll probably close it down, but we are waiting for that decision.

Thereís also a voucher program in place now in Florida that is statewide and that is really made to accommodate kids who attend failing schools. So as we see, the choice movement has really expanded and diversified. Weíve come a long way from when we first heard the word ďvoucherĒ articulated by Milton Friedman in 1955. Vouchers were looked upon as kind of a pure market model response to education in this country, and it was basically an issue that was taken up by the right and Republicans and conservatives.

Voucher issues have become more diverse. One of the strongest constituencies for vouchers today is found in poor communities and minority communities. Matt Miller has done some wonderful journalism, mapping this out both in the work heís done in the New Republic and the Atlantic Monthly and hopefully he will talk a little bit about that today.

We now also have two major private voucher programs. There are 48,000 children taking private scholarships through CEO America and there are another 40,000 benefiting from a philanthropic effort headed up by Ted Forstmann under the Childrenís Scholarship Fund. One experiment in Edgewood, in San Antonio, Texas, will allow any child in the Edgewood School District to take a voucher and go to private school who wants to. John Walton is supporting this program.

The range of programs is enormous and they continue to grow. It is my great pleasure to introduce a very distinguished panel today who will speak to these issues and talk about some of the things theyíve been working on. I am told that my job from here on turns into being a traffic cop, which is not easy. Iím told everybody has 12 minutes to talk and then we can go back and invite more questions about vouchers, which you evidently have a lot of.

Itís very hard to keep elected Mayors and journalists to 12 minutes, but I will do my best. The reason they put me here is, so I can kick people after 10 minutes and remind them that they need to stop talking. Weíll do our best to do that and then weíll open it up to questions.

Our first speaker is the Hon. John Norquist. He is the 39th mayor of the City of Milwaukee. Heís been mayor since 1988.

I can tell you he is a major force behind the nationís first publicly supported voucher program in Wisconsin. He is a Democrat and he was mayor at the time when he took part in this conflict. He is also somebody who has served in both houses of the Wisconsin Legislature and he has served as chair of the National League of Citiesí Task Force on Federal Policy and Family Poverty.

Itís my great pleasure to introduce Mayor John Norquist.

MAYOR JOHN NORQUIST: Iím from Milwaukee, Wisconsin, which has a lot of interesting things going on. The people complained that Milwaukee was too identified with beer, so now we are identified with school choice.

It is something that we deserve to be identified with because we actually have it. Itís not a theory. Itís something thatís going on every day and Iíll tell you about it. But before I do that, I wanted to talk about cities and choice and basically what cities are about--choices. Thatís why people are attracted to cities.

If you just take something as mundane but necessary as eating, if you want to eat in New York City, you have a choice of thousands and thousands of restaurants ranging from good to very good to very bad, very expensive to dirt cheap. Ethnic food from every ethnic group that has restaurants in America is in New York City. To some extent the same thing is true in Milwaukee.

Now if you compare that to say, North Dakota, after you are done with the buffalo, the local versions of McDonaldís and Burger King and so forth, you start running out of choices. Thatís why school choice, just like all the other choices--retail choices, choices of lawyers, choices of bankers, investment bankers whatever--other than agriculture, producing crops, you are going to find more choices in the city.

So, school choice is unique to big cities. I try to explain to the NEA and the AFT people when I am talking to them about choices, that you donít have to worry that itís somehow going to take over the NEA chapters in Wyoming, because Wyoming doesnít have enough people to really have school choice. Itís only in big cities where you find them.

Jersey City has Catholic schools. Milwaukee has Catholic schools, Lutheran schools, lots of private schools, Muslim schools. We have all these different schools in our community. Thatís not going to happen in the rural parts of the United States. So for those who are worried that school choices are somehow a threat to rural America, itís not going to be a threat to rural America, just like choice of restaurants and all the other things are not threats to them.

Cities are big and one of their biggest characteristics is plurality. But the hierarchy that is being imposed on by many federal policies, not least of which is education, undermines the plurality of cities, which is a great benefit. School choice exists in every major metropolitan area in America. People with money and kids leave town. Thatís the school choice system.

This is a school choice system that the education establishment doesnít attack, at least very often. The only remedy for it is to have equalized state aid payments, so that low value school districts get more state aid and high value school districts get less state aid. But other than that, they donít care about the fact that poor kids are largely isolated in big cities and that rich people are in suburban enclaves outside those cities.

Probably the purest example of that would be Detroit. You look at the demographics of the Detroit school system and then compare it to the communities around it, and the people who have money and kids leave town. Thatís school choice. So when the arguments are made that somehow public schools, urban city public schools would be damaged, that rich people might or advantaged people would leave the system, pull their kids away from, say, the Washington public schools if there were vouchers available, thatís already happened.

There are virtually no advantaged, wealthy people with their children within the Washington public schools. The President, most visibly and prominently looking out for the best interest of his daughter, chose to put her in Sidwell Friends School. He did the right thing for his daughter. He and Hillary did it because they loved her. People make decisions like that all the time, to either put their kids in a suburban school or put their kids in a private school or work the system to get their kids into a good city public school.

This is something that arises from the basic desire of parents to have good things for their children. Parents arenít perfect. None of them are. Some are more perfect than others, but even bad parents will tend to choose a better situation for their kidsí schooling than choosing a bad school for their kid.

I want to give you an example of how school choice would work in Washington, D.C. School choice vouchers in Washington would be better for low-income kids than not having vouchers. The bureaucracy in the D.C. public school system does not care as much about the kids as the parents do.

The best evidence of that is the fact that the bureaucracy of the D.C. public school system has yet to do what Bill Clinton did. They havenít made that choice. But just imagine if suddenly there were 200 slots opened up in Sidwell and low-income disadvantaged parents had the opportunity to put their children into that school.

Somehow, even though they come from low-income backgrounds, with less education than most other people on average, D.C. parents would figure out how to fill those slots up just like that. Thatís what school choice does. It empowers parents. Is choice part of the equation or are there other things that arenít so controversial that we could talk about so we are not mad at each other?

Well, there are. But itís fundamental to the debate and you shouldnít be afraid of it. If you believe that vouchers are a solution, you shouldnít try to hide it. Itís fundamental that parents need to have power. The decisions that parents make about their children are very important to them. You can preach social justice all you want. But ultimately the parents are not going to want to expose their children to things that they think would be harmful.

Thatís why realtors know that when they talk about schools to home buyers who have children, that a key factor is going to be schools. So the homebuyers make these decisions to leave town.

Iím a Democrat. Some of my best friends are Democrats. One of my friends is a guy who is an active organizer for the SEIU, the Service Employees Union, who used to live in Sherman Park, a largely African-American neighborhood on the West Side of Milwaukee, and heís very angry with me.

He has a very hard time with the fact that I support school choice. My father was active in the civil rights movement.  He was arrested in Hattiesburg. I am a Democrat. I always vote for Democrats. I voted for Clinton twice, even though I donít agree with him on school choice.

We have a hard time and heís very upset about the fact that I support school choice. He moved to Sherwood, a largely white, an overwhelmingly white, suburb just outside Milwaukee. Heís very angry about choice somehow draining the vitality of the public schools in Milwaukee.

I said, ďDonít you see the contradiction?  Do you know what you are saying? Itís okay for you to leave town, move out of town, take your kids with you and not even be part of the community at all.Ē His response was, ďAt least my kids are in public school.Ē Like somehow that was the key. Government owning the schools was the key factor that matters.

That is not the key factor that matters. What matters is satisfying what parents want. We live in an age where consumer preferences are measured constantly, where even newspapers are trying to measure consumer preferences all the time to change themselves so that they match the preferences that consumers have.

The idea that having a monopoly model, that consumers have to accept whatever is put in front of them for their children, no matter what, and that they donít have any choices, is something that doesnít make any sense at the end of the 20th Century.

Consumers want whatís best for their children. To get it, the system has to have a dynamic in it that delivers what parents want. Itís had a dynamic in it which I find perverted and anti-urban, and that is the dynamic that people with resources and kids move out of town and take all the resources that they have with them and segregate themselves from the poor. People segregate themselves from others who arenít as well off as they are into these little enclaves.

Then they declare success because their school, their Grosse Pointe Farm Schools, are superior to Detroit public schools. Now, that is quite an accomplishment of Grosse Pointe Farmers to be able to do that. They do it by zoning out anybody who is poor, or even middle-class or even upper middle-class.

So they put this little wall around themselves and declare success. Even their schools arenít that good when you look at international rankings. You look at the 30 largest advanced industrial countries in the world and the United States ranks near the bottom.

Tony said earlier that he wanted to have performance measures, which I think are great. By the way, he is a very good mayor.

But the performance measure idea he had, did you hear the limited criteria of comparing Washington D.C. with other distressed low-income cities? Now if you are a parent, is that going to be satisfactory to you? Would that do it for you to say, well, Iím going to put my school in the D.C. public schools because they are almost as good as the Detroit public schools, or they are almost as good as Baltimore? But thatís not the equation parents make. Itís, are they as good as Prince Georges County? Are they as good as the schools in Montgomery County? Thatís the equation that people are making.

So ultimately, they have to get much better. What is happening in Milwaukee now is that the voucher program is no longer really debated on the merits of whether to have it.

The argumentís pretty well over. At least itís compartmentalized. We are now on to what we have a special responsibility to do, and that is, fixing the public schools. The school board that was elected last April was partly in response to the fact that choice parents are now organized in the community and the politics of the community has been transformed. The school board was six to three controlled by the local NEA affiliate. Itís now seven to two in favor of reform members.

They have hired a new superintendent. They are in a hurry. The superintendent by the way, wasnít found in a nationwide search, but is a principal right out of one of Milwaukeeís own schools. The focus is on raising quality so that Milwaukee public schools attract the positive attention of parents. Thatís what itís about. Now the Catholic schools, instead of gloating in their supposed superiority to public system, and Lutheran schools and the other and the non-religious private schools, they now have to focus on getting better themselves.

Really the model for this is, you can look at other countries, the Netherlands or Canada, wherever they have forms of school choice. Look at our own higher education system where weíve had school choice, including the Constitutionally questioned religious school choice. The Constitutional issues really are not that daunting. They really donít exist. Ultimately I think the courts will approve of religious school choice for K through 12 education because if they didnít, how would they justify the GI bill and Pell Grants and all the other programs?

Look at higher education. We have the best higher education in the world, better than any other country. More people from around the world want to go to our schools, not schools in Britain, not in Germany, not in Japan. They want our higher education. Where is the higher education concentrated? In the cities.

North Dakota State may be a good teachersí college, but itís not a rival to the University of Chicago or to Georgetown or to New York University or to Harvard. The great universities of America are almost all in the big cities, getting back to the point I started with.

Cities have always been the place where consumers have the most choices, where they can choose quality, where they can get the things they need and want. Big cities ought to be the best place to educate your children. In Milwaukee now, we have school choice in various forms. We have the voucher program that is limited to low-income families under roughly $30,000, although the limits are gradually going up.

We also have school choice that is called ďcharter.Ē ďCharterĒ is a word that can mean many things. It can mean a school thatís exactly like the worst public school ever, with bureaucracy dominating it. Itís something that could be a private school but itís chartered in a way that government provides money to it. It means lots of things. But in Milwaukee, there are charter school programs that donít have income limits.

So anybody who lives in Milwaukee, even Warren Bartlettís kid Peter, who actually lives in Milwaukee, in the city, would be eligible for the charter school program. It operates exactly like the voucher program. The support for vouchers and charters and choice come from parents, and itís driven from this desire that parents have for their children to do well. Now we are getting to the point where we are working with the union. We are not fighting with them all the time about this. We are working with them, making the public schools better, making the public schools a place where teachers love to teach, where good teachers are rewarded more for their great, important skills that they have.

These things are starting, we are moving beyond the debate. So in answer to the main question that was asked today, I think choice is actually fundamental. You can call vouchers scholarships. You can call all these things charters, you can call them different things. But ultimately it is fundamental that parents should be able to seek what they want for their children without having to move to some place where low-income people donít live. Which is the choice system we have had everywhere over the last 50 years.

Itís happening in Milwaukee, itís happening in Cleveland, and itís going to happen all over the country in cities and only in cities. Itís not going to happen in the rural areas, because thereís not enough people to generate choice.

So this is one of the great building blocks thatís going to make the 21st Century the century of cities. I am very optimistic about American cities. We are shedding a lot of these shackles, some of which were self-imposed, and getting back to the basic purposes of cities, which is to grow civilization and be great places to live and work. Thank you.

DR. JOSEPH VITERITTI: Our next speaker is the Honorable Bret Schundler. Mayor Schundler is the first Republican to ever have been elected mayor of Jersey City. He has recently been chosen by Time magazine, his city, as a model for national urban reform and heís really one of the original strong advocates for voucher programs among urban populations. Mayor Schundler has been supporting this program of vouchers for a long time and he continues to. Mayor Schundler also resides in and rules over a city that has a very strong charter school program, and he actually founded his own charter school.

Heís here today to tell you a little bit more of what that struggle is like and what he intends to do for the future, not only for his city, but for his state. Thank you.

MAYOR BRET SCHUNDLER: Actually, I am not the first Republican mayor, but I am the first since the World War I. But itís nice to know that there are precedents.

Those who oppose vouchers as being part of the solution use as their number one argument that vouchers will drain dollars from our government schools. They posit, in that regard, that a large budget is a good thing. Now if the size of a budget is important, then Jersey City and Newark would be considered the best places to send your children to school in New Jersey. Our budgets are so much greater than those of small affluent communities like Short Hills.

But itís interesting that somehow our parents in practice donít really find the size of our budget that significant. They seem to prefer these small affluent community schools to Jersey City and Newark. It seems to me, that appearances are right. That itís not the absolute size of a budget thatís important. The amount of money you have per child is important and spending it well is very important. But itís not the absolute size of the budget thatís important.

Would it be possible that we could actually increase the amount of money we have per child, not only in terms of supporting those who might choose a privately managed school for their children, but also increase the amount of money we have per child within our government schools? Could we do both at the same time as we reduce taxes?

The answer is yes. It is totally possible that we can achieve that. Vouchers are part of the solution, not just in terms of expanding education alternatives for low-income children, but for also decreasing the cost of educating the children of more affluent families who put their children in a privately managed school.

Itís part of the solution for a lot of us. Let me explain how that can be done. In Jersey City, we have 30,000 students in our government schools. We have 10,000 in our privately managed schools. Now we are spending $9,000 per child on the children in our government schools for operating expenses. Thatís called the base student amount.

Now on top of that, we provide another $2,000 on average per child in special needs funds. Because the overwhelming majority of our children are very low-income, they usually qualify for some extra state dollars.

Additionally, our teachers within the government schools get about $1,000 per child in pension subsidy, paid directly by the state of New Jersey. It never comes into the local school district budget. I might add that Jersey City is one of those rare cities in America that is actually booming in terms of population. The result is that we have tremendous overcrowding in our government school system.

The state of New Jersey, which directly administers the Jersey City school district, is suggesting that we build 10 new public schools to decrease the overcrowding. They see the overcrowding problem. So they want to create extra public schools to decrease the overcrowding.

Look at whatever it costs to build those public schools. Amortize the debt that will have to be issued to fund the construction of those schools and spread it over 20 years of bonds issued to fund those schools. It comes to $3,000 per year for each child in that school.

Now this is the stateís plan to address our overcrowding problem. If you add that up, the $9,000 base student amount, the $2,000 special needs money, the $1,000 teacher pension subsidy, and the $3,000 per child extra money for capital expense amortization, the students in those new schools will be costing the state of New Jersey $15,000 per year. Thatís a fairly significant amount of money.

Now letís just say that instead, we provided students who desire to leave, or parents who desire to have their child transferred into a privately-managed school, a $2,000 voucher. In Jersey City, that would cover more than 100% of the cost of our privately managed grammar schools. Jersey City is a low-income city, primarily, and our privately managed grammar schools are very inexpensive.

Those who are there teach out of a sense of mission, not to make money. The average private-managed grammar school has a tuition of only $1,800. The average privately managed high school has a tuition of only $3,500. We provide $2,000. That would not only cover 100% of the tuition for grammar school children, but we know, in fact, that you have interest in using those vouchers for transfer.

In fact, we have a Childrenís Scholarship Fund affiliate in Jersey City, and when we made $1,000 scholarships available we had over 6,500 applicants to take advantage of those scholarships for some of the 3,500 seats that are currently available in our privately-managed schools.

Along with those 3,500 in Jersey City, we have 1,500 in surrounding areas that are available, because our children just canít afford them without any scholarship assistance. In short, if we make $2,000 available per child, we know that we could have at least 5,000 children who would want to take advantage of that, and that would decrease overcrowding right there.

Now that would save $13,000 per child. Now letís say what we do is take $8,000 of that and leave it in the school that the child left. Just leave it there, even though the childís gone. We had 30,000 children in our government schools. If 5,000 leave, weíll have 25,000 children. The 5,000 who leave will leave $8,000 per child. Thatís $40 million that will be left behind to add to per child spending of the 25,000 who remain in our publicly managed schools or governmentally managed schools.

That will allow you to increase per child funding by $1,600 per child for those who remain in the government school system. Now it would also leave us $5,000 for each of those children who leave, for the taxpayer. If 5,000 children leave and you have $5,000 per child savings for the taxpayer, thatís $25 million.

There are 10,000 children right now in privately managed schools in Jersey City. If we gave them all a $2,000 voucher that would be $20 million in expenses. After covering that, we would still have $5 million left over for the taxpayer to enjoy lower property taxes and state income taxes.

So in short, we can readily provide a $2,000 voucher for every one of these 5,000 children who would leave government schools, and the 10,000 children already in privately managed schools. We can significantly increase per child funding for those who remain in the government school system and we could lower property taxes. Not a bad deal, if we are simply willing to take a creative approach in dealing with overcrowding, instead of spending hundreds of millions of dollars to build new government schools when thatís not the preferred solution of our people or in the best interest of our taxpayers.

In short, all we have to do is do what the parents want. Now there are some who say that, well, sure, maybe it works financially. Maybe it really isnít a problem that it will drain our schools of funding, maybe more money per child actually is not a bad thing, but it would still be bad, because it would be the more talented children who would leave the government schools. Thatís what they call the ďcreamingĒ argument.

The fact is, empirically demonstrated in case after case, whether you are talking about charter school programs that have been put into place or where voucher programs already exist, that the children who leave schools when choice becomes available are children who are failing. Parents donít move the children who are doing well because they have no interest in messing with success. When children are thriving and getting Aís, parents keep them where they are.

I just opened, as was mentioned, the charter school in Jersey City. We had 1,500 applications for the 500 spots available. Now when you have an over subscription like that, the state law mandates that students are chosen by lottery. They have a total random sampling of the applicants who were ultimately chosen to go into the school. When we look at our 500 student body that was chosen from that larger pool, we find that 85% are African-American, 10% are Hispanic, 5% are Asian and white. 88% are school lunch-eligible, which is to say low-income, 50% are from single-parent families.

In short, these children have all of, if you will, the income and family criteria that suggests that maybe they wonít do so well. When you actually looked at the students, you find out that they actually were struggling in the public schools. Income disadvantage and single-parent disadvantage may explain why the kids were struggling. Does that mean that the children can never succeed, that thereís no program that can actually successfully intervene and help expand opportunities for those children?

I say no. What we found out with our kids, we looked at our kindergartners. They came in testing at the 24th percentile on the Iowa Reading Test, not surprising given their low-income and the single-parent families. But after one year at our charter school, they are testing at the 39th percentile. They have gained 15 percentile points in just one year, a dramatic improvement. In short, this is a successful intervention.

I think by next year weíll have them at the average. So we will have compensated for the disadvantage and they will be performing on par with the average American student. So you can have a successful social intervention that compensates for economic disadvantage.

But beyond that optimistic note, the reality is that the ďcreamingĒ argument is bogus. Not only will vouchers help public schools by allowing more money per child for those who remain in them, but youíll also have an easier group of students to work with. Because the students who were not succeeding in that particular environment, their parents will look for programs that work better with those children.

So in short, the governmentally managed schools will end up having children who thrive better in the particular environment that they provide. Additionally, one of the last things I want to highlight, because we do have limited time, charter schools are great and they do provide opportunities to do innovating things that we can prove work. But they are, unfortunately, still under full government regulation. What happens with the teachersí union, unfortunately, when they see a successful competitor, is they want to kill it because they do not want to have accountability for performance.

So the inclination of the teachersí union is to try to pile on new regulations under the charter school movement in New Jersey. Charter schools are already under the full regulation burden that afflicts our government schools today. But because even with that they are succeeding, now our New Jersey Education Association wants to pile extra regulations upon them.

You canít do that with the religiously affiliated schools because of the First Amendment, separation from an excessive entanglement with a religious institution. So by having vouchers permitted so that children can go to religiously affiliated schools, you create a credible option for educating children that cannot be crushed by government regulation. A program that cannot be destroyed by tying the hands of successful educators makes sense.

In our government, schools need that. There needs to be a spur or an impetus to reform that can remain separate from political powerís interest in destroying its effectiveness. Who has political power when I talk about that? In New Jersey, the largest, most affluent, most numerous if you will, special interest group, is the New Jersey Education Association. Iím sure thatís not a shock to anybody.

They have more money than any other interest group in Trenton. They have more members than any other interest group in Trenton. If we are going to make sure that schools can honestly compete and canít be killed off, ultimately itís going to have to be a religious organization. Thatís the only organization thatís protected from regulatory slow death.

But when they are there as an honest competitor, it creates an impetus, as long as the voucher program is in place, for the government interest groups to start working for the deregulation of government schools. If the teachersí union recognizes that it will have to compete with privately managed, religiously affiliated, less regulated schools, it will become a force for the deregulation of our government schools so that these schools can compete successfully and do the innovative things necessary to help our children learn.

That is a critical element in making sure there is true reform that survives in our government school sector. I just want to close with this last story. I am a Republican, as was mentioned, in a place like Jersey City. It was only 6% Republican when I was first elected. We are soaring now in registration.

But the way I got elected was simply by going door to door, for instance, in our housing projects. We were spending at that time, our base amount again, was $9,000 per year per child. I didnít even talk about all the other money we were spending. I just said, we are spending $9,000 per year per child. If you had control of that money and you could choose what school to put your child in, government school or a privately managed school, donít you think you could guarantee a great education for your child?

Not one parent ever said I donít understand that concept. They knew that if they had that money, instead of having to organize to try to become a more powerful political force than the teachersí union, they could simply do whatís best for their children, and then everyone associated with the government schools would have to focus on performance.

MATTHEW MILLER: If you add up Milwaukee and Cleveland and all that stuff that the CSF is doing, itís a fraction of American school children. Ten million kids in inner city schools are not getting great education today. Thereís 52 million from K to 12 and you can imagine the voucher experiments in the thousands.

At this rate, I thought, we could be having this debate for the next 20 years and youíd still have a whole other generation or two of kids coming out of urban schools without getting better education. So I tried to look into it and started reporting on it, in a way to see if there wasnít some way to break the logjam that was making this polarized debate so intractable.

I had the impression that vouchers were the brainchild of Milton Friedman and sort of passed on through his devotees and conservative ideology. Having followed the debate, having read the papers and the various articles, I found--which was surprising to me--that in a few cities, itís an idea that has been embraced by some urban blacks, urban black leaders, urban black parents, who often the urban black leadership characterized as misguided. They didnít understand what was in their own best interest.

What I found instead, was thatís kind of a caricature and that in fact, there is a pro-voucher left that has a distinguished intellectual pedigree that came out of the camp concerned with school finance equity, starting in the 1960s. A man named Jack Coons was sort of the grandfather of this and is now a professor emeritus at Berkeley. But when he was in Chicago in the 1960s, he and a colleague named Steve Sugarman, whoís also been involved in this effort with him, began litigation on behalf of school finance equity. You know, the gap between the richer districts, most of the suburbs and the poorer districts and the cities.

They proposed, in a way that went very unnoticed at the time, vouchers as one possible remedy. Their thinking was, since you are never going to get local control and local finance challenged ultimately as the source of school revenue, that one way you could help those communities that had less money was to top off what the locality got by giving the voucher to the parents. What could be more local than giving the parent a voucher?

So this theme of vouchers as a solution or a potential solution to the inequity in school finance, that is not discussed at the national level, came out of the left. Yet because that group has not had the money, the voice, the political savvy, that the pro-voucher right has had, itís largely gone unheard in the debate. But it is there. So once you sort of rehabilitate the notion that there is a progressive case to be made for vouchers, which obviously a Democratic Mayor like John Norquist makes very eloquently, then the question is, what are the arguments that are making this debate so stagnant?

I found a lot of charades being peddled, Iíd argue on both sides, by the left and the right. I think Bret did a good job, sort of demolishing a lot of the arguments that the left usually makes about why vouchers canít work or are wrong. He hit the argument that it would take dollars away from public schools, which is wrong headed, I agree, for reasons he mentioned.

Let me just hit a couple others quickly. One is that the unions often argue that vouchers just donít work. This is a crazy argument to make. Youíve got such a tiny fraction of kids in these voucher experiments. Both sides are funding their own Harvard Ph.D.s to do studies and experiments on these kids to assess what the impact is on student learning. The samples are so small at this point that the results turn on whether a couple of kids in Cleveland turned in their homework on time. That seems to be whatís skewing the results.

I canít make sense of these studies. I think itís crazy to think that you could make some sweeping conclusions about whether vouchers do or donít work when the sample is this small. All of that just bolsters the case for bigger trials of vouchers so we can see what the real impact is.

One of the other arguments that the left makes is that thereís no capacity. I remember when I did this piece, Bob Chase and Sandra Feldman from the NEA and AFT would say, ďWhere are the schools? Where are the schools going to come from, if we give these kids vouchers?Ē To which, my first response was, ďWhatís the problem?Ē Itís a practical matter that not more than a couple percent of kids will take vouchers and use them for these new schools or there wonít be a supply response that would bring new schools into being. As a practical matter, 98% or 96% of the kids would remain in the public schools. Whatís the harm in trying it, especially in these urban systems where there are so many problems?

Another argument that folks on the left tend to make is that profit is bad. Introducing the profit motive into schooling and having these privately run corporations where you can, public corporations running chains of schools, is somehow bad. I think thatís bogus because right now schools are big business.

I mean, K to 12 schooling now spends about $350 billion in the country. Is there anyone who doesnít think that thatís not a huge business for the textbook publishers or janitorial services, food services, software suppliers? Government in education, just like it is in defense contracting and health care, will always be largely about business or partly about business.

Thereís no reason to think that the waste or abuse under a voucher scheme is going to be any worse than the kind of abuses and the scandals you have now, when you have that big a pot of public money going to a central public service. There are business interests at stake and we canít be naive about that. But itís no different than it is now. So itís not something that uniquely tars the voucher idea.

So those are some of the arguments just to add to what Bret said, that I think are non-meritorious on the left. But since this is a Manhattan Institute crowd, I urge you to think about what I think are the arguments that I think are unpersuasive on the right, and there are two big ones.

The first is that vouchers can save lots of money. Milton Friedman has long argued, and many others argue, perhaps many of you in this room, that parochial schools, because they operate at so much lower per pupil cost than public schools, are part of the evidence why vouchers are able to save taxpayers enormous amounts of money.

I have a couple of responses to that. First, especially in urban schools, there are many cities--and Iím not talking about places like Newark-- there are a lot of towns now that are spending a lot more than the average or than even the state average and not getting good results.

But there are many cities--Baltimore, Providence, you can find them all over the country--that clearly have higher need populations. Higher needs kids that they are educating and they are spending less than the state is, on the whole, and they are spending substantially less than the nearby suburbs which have much easier sets of kids to teach. Philadelphia spends something like $6,900 per pupil. The surrounding suburbs spend $1,900 more.

You know that the kids in Philadelphia are harder to educate. So those kinds of inequities, to me, make it clear that putting aside the ones where thereís clearly mismanagement, like Newark, like Washington, D.C., that you canít talk about vouchers as being the path to sure savings.

Thereís also the problem of this huge repair backlog in our public schools. The General Accounting Office has estimated over $100 billion. The cities probably account for half of that. Anyone whoís gone to downtown schools, I live in Los Angeles, you go through these schools and they are a mess. I mean the roofs are leaking, the sewage is coming in. Itís a huge problem.

So the idea that just on the capital side that more money wonít be required to help some of these urban schools, I think, is wrong. So the first conservative charade, Iíd argue, is that vouchers can save lots of money. That should be challenged.

The second is that freer markets are always better. This is what I mean. The Milton Friedman model of vouchers would have no protection, if you had a universal voucher system, for lower-income or disadvantaged or disabled kids.

Jack Coons, the author of the pro-voucher left strand of voucher thinking that I mentioned, included provisions in voucher proposals to protect lower income or disabled kids. If you have a pure free market in vouchers, the obvious incentive for private school operators is to take the kids who are the healthiest and the wealthiest. The obvious thing to do is take vouchers from kids who can add more to the tuition than the kids who are less difficult to teach and maximize profits, thatís only natural.

So Coons and others have always argued that if you are going to have a universal scheme you should have protection. For example, 15% of the places in schools where vouchers are used are set aside for vouchers to be accepted as full tuition, so that low-income kids could go to a Sidwell Friends, something like that.

The other way around that problem, obviously, is to just to offer the vouchers to low-income kids themselves, which then doesnít make it a matter of skimming off only the wealthiest, the most attractive kids for private school operators to teach.

So you look at those charades on both sides and what I try to do, is then say, ďIs there some kind of grand bargain?Ē Iím sort of philosophically a sucker for grand bargains, looking for ways that left and right might come together to move off the ball on this. So what I floated in this piece and tried to shop to some of the players in the debate was the following idea.

Letís take 3 or 4 cities that everyone agrees are dysfunctional, where the public schools arenít working. Donít take cities like Washington, D.C. or Newark, where per pupil spending is already ridiculously high and thereís clearly some problem.

But take these cities where they are spending less per pupil than the state, with higher needs kids, and then give each side something it says it wants. For the left, increase per pupil spending by, say, 20%. But only do it through something like a universal voucher system in that city. I shopped this around to all kinds of folks and, I think, got them all sort of in the same room, except for the teachers unions.

I had compelling conversations with Bob Chase, who, when I said, ďWould you accept some kind of bargain like this, is there ever a scenario under which you might?Ē He said no. I said, ďWhat if we doubled per pupil spending?Ē ďNo.Ē You know, making clear that he and the unionís position is that they donít want to accept the sort of camelís nose under the tent in any guise on vouchers, even if it meant increasing per pupil spending.

Now I understand the slippery slope argument they make. But just to try to wrap it up briefly, I think a grand bargain like that might have some political traction. It did get guys like Lamar Alexander, even though they didnít like the increased spending, were willing to do it, if it would give a much bigger test of vouchers, to say half a million kids, rather than the handful of thousands that we have now.

A column on this idea a couple of weeks ago got Ed Rendell to say he would sign on to a deal like this. This is a very interesting thing, given that Rendell is now Chair of the Democratic Party, but also a pragmatic Mayor, who would like to solve problems in the inner cities.

So let me just leave you with this notion that I think there are ways to break the logjam. It would involve being a little creative on both sides, the left giving up its monopoly, the right giving up the idea that you had to save money from doing the choice idea. In the long term, the way for this idea to really come together is for the choice camp and equity camps to come together to try and forge new coalitions that would get support for doing stuff for city kids.

DR. JOSEPH VITERITTI: The Children Scholarship Fund provides $160 million in private money to provide scholarships for low-income children around the country. They now award 40,000 scholarships in cities across the nation. Earlier this year, when they announced their first lottery, they received 1,250,000 applications from low-income children. It was one of the real moments of truth in the whole choice debate, because you had over a million poor people volunteering to give up a free public school education for a partial scholarship to attend a non-public school.

Darla Romfo is the President and Chief Executive Officer of the Childrenís Scholarship Fund.

DARLA ROMFO: When I was thinking about this question, we donít really, at the Childrenís Scholarship Fund, talk a lot about the issue of vouchers, if you can believe it. When I was thinking about this question and how to answer it, I thought about it in a couple of different ways.

From the perspective of our families, with the 40,000 kids, which I am happy to say, that we have the 40,000 successfully enrolled in school, which is no small task, but we are very proud and happy about that. But I can tell you from talking to these families and from the perspective of these families, that our scholarships, and I am sure the publicly funded vouchers throughout the country, are definitely part of the answer.

They donít have the luxury of talking about the theoretical solutions to these problems. These are real people with real little kids who are in really bad situations, and they are just so thankful. I mean, hearing the stories and watching them come up to Ted and thanking him. Whatever happens in this whole debate, those 40,000 are going to have a lot better life.

So for them, yes, this is a very real part of the answer. We are losing a generation of kids while we are sitting here talking about it. They are not learning to read and write. They are not even safe. They are in unsafe conditions. Thatís whatís happening while we all sit around and talk about it. One of the reasons I went to work for this organization is that I am proud to be a part of something where two individuals step forward, put their money where their mouth is, and are doing something.

But there is a second part of the answer to this question. I think by asking it, ďAre Vouchers Part of The Answer?Ē you immediately get down to the whole discussion about vouchers. I used to work on Capitol Hill and I know all the things that that conjures up in somebodyís mind immediately. I think thereís really a larger question that we should be asking.

That is, what is the best situation that we can provide in terms of learning, should it really be through only one supplier? Is the government the only supplier of education that should be allowed into the marketplace? If youíve ever read or seen anything that Ted Forstmann has done in this area, he compares it to everything else we do in America.

When you think about everything else in America, would we say there should only be one supplier of computers, there should be only one supplier of cars? Absolutely not. That is so anti-American. Yet, in the area of education, when you start talking about the multiplicity of suppliers, you are accused of being un-American. Ted was actually accused of being un-American when he first started this Childrenís Scholarship Fund. ďHow could you dare talk about anything negative about the public school system?Ē

Itís not about trashing the public school system. There are a lot of good public schools. There are a lot of good charter schools, and those have government strings attached to them. Itís not about trashing public schools systems. Itís about talking about what really works.

If we had a multiplicity of suppliers, who knows who would come in and supply education? Maybe it would be Bill Gates, maybe it would be a museum, maybe it would be a university. Right now, thatís not possible. As a culture and as a society, we donít even think through the first layer of that discussion. We are all attached to the idea of the public school system. Well, at least I send my kids to public schools, like thatís somehow a sacred thing.

The school system is not the sacred thing. The kids that are in the system are sacred. If we were really thinking about this question and whatís important, it doesnít matter if it were vouchers or tax credits or whatever worked in terms of allowing a new stream of suppliers into the market place and the whole question about where the schools come from.

Of course, if there was a steady stream of money following the child and you knew it was secure, all kinds of suppliers would step into the market. This is America. A business that maybe money would be made out of would attract all kinds of participants. If they were providing a good education, why shouldnít they make money? Why shouldnít parents be able to choose if they donít like that education? They could take their children somewhere else, just like you can anywhere else in this country.

We have a product that American consumers -- in our case 1,250,000 people who are low-income, average income, $22,000 a year -- are willing to pay $1,000 of their own money for. Do you know how hard that is to come up with an extra $1,000, when you only make $22,000 a year?

These are families who think we did the greatest thing in the world for them. They are thanking us and you feel guilty saying, ďWell, we are not even paying the whole thing.Ē You feel guilty that they have to pay $1,000. But they are privileged to do that, they are happy to do that. So these are people that care desperately about their kids and they want more choices, and this system is not providing it for them.

So, are vouchers part of the answer? When we talk about vouchers, people can get on the high moral ground and say, well you know, they are defending the Constitution when they are against vouchers. But I canít believe that the American Constitution envisioned that you are supposed to trap little kids in failing school systems where they are not even safe. That doesnít ring true in my ears and I donít think it would to anybody else sitting up here either.

I really would like to say once again that I think, when you talk about this, when you think about it, you need to think about it even beyond vouchers. You need to think about what would work. What kind of educational environment we would want for our kids. Do we want more suppliers? I think the parents, the consumer, to whom we look to in every other aspect of American culture, are saying yes, we want choices.

Bare minimum, we want our kids to go to a safe school where they are going to learn to read and write and be able to function as an adult in the American society. So thank you for listening and it was great to hear from everybody here. It was great to see all these people who have thought so much about it and are doing things, putting their money where their mouth is.

DR. JOSEPH VITERITTI: We have time for questions. Please introduce yourself and you can direct your question either to one of the panelists or to all of the panelists.

QUESTION: Mr. Johnson, Information League. I am not so sure that there are thousands and thousands of empty seats. But itís also been mentioned that there are a lot of other groups that want to establish schools.

DARLA ROMFO: Well, you are making a huge assumption. Thatís a basic premise where we probably differ. I will always make the assumption that a parent is in the best position to decide, make the decisions for their children. We do that in all other parts of our society. We always look at the best interest of the children. We will even put kids back into situations that you might find questionable, I might find questionable, because itís in the best interest of the child, the family connection.

I think we are taking a huge leap. I donít know how we got here as a society to suddenly say the government is in a better position to make lots of fundamental decisions about a child. Why is that, why do you think thatís true? I donít think itís true.

MAYOR JOHN NORQUIST: Iíd like to second that. The actual origin of the public school system was created to proselytize immigrants. At the turn of the 19th century, we had significant Catholic and Jewish immigration coming into the United States and the Protestant elite at that time felt, frankly, that they might not be good Americans, that they werenít meaning to be good Protestants. So there were actually laws that many states passed that you must go to government schools, no matter what your parentsí economic standing. You must go to government schools. They were taught Protestant religious teachings in those public schools.

It was in the 1920s in the Pierce v. the Society of Sisters U.S. Supreme Court decision, where the Supreme Court ruled that children are given by God to the parents and parents have a prior right over the state to determine the appropriate education of their children. Thank God for that affirmation of the American Constitutional heritage.

The thing that scares me is the prospect of government deciding that we donít approve of other religions. They should be banned and therefore you must send your child to a school where we will teach your child what we believe your child should believe in. I think thatís a direct assault on minority rights. It s a direct assault on our American Constitutional heritage.

However, today in practice, children of more affluent families, because of that Pierce v. Society of Sisters decision, the religious liberty of children of more affluent families is protected. They can choose to enroll their child in a religiously affiliated school. Because of that decision, affirming our Constitutional heritage.

But that Constitutional right is denied to children of lower income families. After paying high taxes, they could not afford to pay again for the education of their children. So we have a situation where a Constitutional right, and I might add one connected to the First Amendment of the United States, is made available to parents of means. However, itís denied to the poor and I donít think thatís what America is all about.

QUESTION: [unintelligible].

MATT MILLER: I can see where, if there were suddenly a string of Ku Klux Klan academies, that it would be a concern that public money was going through a lot of that. But I donít think the risk of that is something that necessarily needs to bar much bigger trials, if this is the way to help urban kids. But I do agree there is a potential legitimate issue.

On capacity, I think thatís why itís important that the voucher experiment be conducted at much higher per pupil levels. George W. Bush, in talking about letting Title I be portable, talks about a $1,500 package. The CSF has a $1,500 package, I think, of scholarships. Those things are great for filling empty seats in parochial schools. They will not encourage the capital investment that private management would need for new schools. Thatís why I think you would have to be 70% or 80% of people spending to get a real meaningful test of the supply response in major cities.

QUESTION: Hi, Gerry Amamol, PCY. In a prior life, I was involved in another education issue that was just as divisive and was even more politicized than in vouchers. That issue is being decided now, not by the think tanks, but by the political process and by what voters think of the results in their public schools. Is there a way that the voucher issue and, perhaps in states that donít have charter schools, the charter schools issue, will be decided through the political process and perhaps through direct initiatives, through bolder initiatives, rather than through more debate among the scholars?

MAYOR JOHN NORQUIST: The bilingual education is changing and the supporters of it are changing the definition of it to suit what people would want. So itís gradually changing with the public preferences. Under a parental choice system, things that people donít want will disappear. The fear of a Ku Klux Klan school or a Nation of Islam school--Farrakhan, thatís one thatís often brought up particularly--we have an Anti-Defamation League chapter in Milwaukee that are concerned about that.

I would point out that there are only two schools in the whole state of Wisconsin that are named after the members of the Nation of Islam and they are both public schools. The other side of the issue that should haunt people a little bit are the Scientologists in Florida, who do not have universal acceptance in the United States. I donít want to slam them or anything, but I just personally wouldnít want my own child to go to a Scientology school, so I would choose against that.

But they are pretty close to the majority of the voters now in this little town in Florida where they are. If they took over the school board, I would think that there would be a lot of people who opposed school choice who might take a whole new view of it, if the Scientologists were running the public school system by taking it over through elections.

So the idea that somehow vouchers are automatically an assault on religious freedom, whereas the government running schools is automatically wide open freedom of religion, is questionable. I think itís much more likely for the government to suppress religious freedom than parents and parents who can choose in Milwaukee to send their children to, for example, Shalom School, a Jewish school on the West Side, a religious school where religious teaching is part of the curriculum.

Two non-Jews go to the school. They know that religious curriculum will be taught. If they didnít like it, they could pull their kids out and put them somewhere else. But thatís their choice. I think thatís consistent with freedom of religion, just as it is with higher education, where you have a wide range of religious private and government run schools.

Iíve always felt that thereís greater threat to our children in the inner city than religion.

MAYOR BRET SCHUNDLER: I just wanted to say, on the initiative and referendum issue, I think there is going to come a time when you see vouchers pass through initiative and referendum. The problem with initiative and referendum issues is that they are very expensive to the public education campaign in advance of the actual vote. Typically, the teachersí union, which has enormous resources, can just blow out the comparable resources that can be marshaled by the pro school choice side of the argument.

Where youíve had choice pass by legislatures, the individual legislator could actually hear in-depth arguments made by proponents and opponents of school choice. Itís more a matter of who has the better arguments as opposed to who can do the better 30-second sound bite by commercials.

MATT MILLER: Just to toss onto that, in California vouchers were defeated by a wide margin because the teachersí union spent about $20 million in 1992 and 1993. Part of the problem, though, is that there is an internal fight, as there always is, between the very conservative voucher components--the Milton Friedman and the Jack Coons campsóand the more progressive one I described.

Because the funding for the pro-initiative movement tends to come from the right, they want to put on the ballot a pure market choice plan which people like Coons and the pro-voucher left, for reasons I would agree with, resist. So they walk away, the pure market one gets put on the ballot, the teachers come in and spend $20 million and you are in that sort of cycle. So I donít know how we break out of that, but I think thatís the dynamic affecting a lot of this.

DARLA ROMFO: I just want to add one little thing. I donít think we know exactly how we are going to get where it needs to be. But I do know, if you look at the board of the Childrenís Scholarship Fund, that there are a lot of people that you might not expect coming together, a lot of African-American leaders, people all over the political spectrum.

When you talk about it not in a political context, when you talk about it in terms of kidsí lives and helping individual people be some place different than they are, thereís a lot of support for it. So somehow you need to take that and move it to the next step. Talk about it in a different way, I donít know what it is. But I just know that there are a lot of kids out there and we only helped 40,000. We didnít even get to half the kids that would have qualified, and we had 1,250,000 people who contacted us. So itís a big problem.

DR. JOSEPH VITERITTI: We are out of time. I would like to thank our very distinguished panelists for offering us their informative remarks. On behalf of the Manhattan Institute, I would like to thank all of you for coming today.

<-----Previous

 


Center for Civic Innovation.

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CENTER FOR CIVIC INNOVATION MAYORS' EDUCATION SUMMIT

SUMMARY:
The Mayorís Education Summit addressed several approaches to meaningful education reform with panel discussions of: ĎAre Vouchers Part of the Answer?í; ĎThe Charter School Movementí; and ĎHolding Educators Accountableí. The mayors drew on their on their experiences in government to explain why permitting competition in the education marketplace is best way to improve schools and empower parents.

AGENDA:

Welcoming Remarks and Introduction

The Honorable Stephen Goldsmith, Mayor of Indianapolis, IN

ďThe Charter School MovementĒ

Moderator: Bruno V. Manno, Annie E. Casey Foundation

Panelists:

The Honorable Norm Coleman, Mayor of St. Paul, MN

Steve Klinsky, Victory Schools

Roger Harris, Principal, Boston Renaissance Charter Schools

The Rev. Dr. Floyd H. Flake, Adjunct Fellow, Manhattan Institute

ďHolding Educators AccountableĒ

Moderator:

Henry Olsen, Manhattan Institute

Panelists:

The Honorable Phil Bredesen, former Mayor of Nashville, TN

The Honorable Tom Fetzer, Mayor of Raleigh, NC

Chester E. Finn, Jr., John M. Olin Senior Fellow, Manhattan Institute

Featured Speaker

The Honorable Anthony Williams, Mayor of Washington, D.C.

ďAre Vouchers Part of the Answer?Ē

Moderator:

Dr. Joseph Viteritti, Professor, New York University

Panelists:

The Honorable John Norquist, Mayor of Milwaukee, WI

The Honorable Bret Schundler, Mayor of Jersey City, NJ

Matthew Miller, The New Republic

Darla Romfo, Childrenís Scholarship Fund

 


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