The Sad Truth About School Vouchers

Will school choice fix our educational system? Many aspects of education can be studied empirically, so I should be able to sit at my computer and find data to answer the question. Right?

If you agreed, either you’ve been smoking pot or you come from another country. The sad truth is this: American party politics are making a mess of what should be a nonpolitical issue.

Here’s the GOP’s official stance on education:

We believe that maintaining a world-class system of primary and secondary education, with high standards, in which all students can reach their potential, is critically important to America’s future. We believe in the power of school choice, that giving parents the ability to send their children to better schools — not keeping them trapped in failing schools — is an important way to enable children to get the quality education they deserve.

Let’s put aside the obvious contradiction — a world-class education system would have no failing schools and therefore no need for school choice — and acknowledge that the Republican platform is advocating abandoning public education in favor of a business model.

Here’s what the Democrats have to say:

Democrats share with all parents the commitment to prepare our children to lead lives of happiness and success. That’s why we’re dedicated to ensuring the next generation has access to a first-rate education and the tools to drive our economy forward. Our country is strongest when our workers are trained with the knowledge and ingenuity to perform at the highest levels. Every child should have the opportunity to reach that horizon and to fulfill the American Dream.

At least the Republican statement was more specific than this wishy-washy collection of emotional words. After citing the history of Democrats’ involvement in education, the Dems offer this detail:

The Obama Administration is working to overhaul the “No Child Left Behind” program and provide teachers with more professional support and resources—while also holding them accountable. President Obama instituted “Race to the Top,” a revolutionary program designed to promote innovation and provide incentives for improvement in education.

Basically, the Democrats prefer reform of the existing system.

So that’s why research related to school choice has become a political issue. Here are some studies on the topic:


  • A 2011 review of other studies found that vouchers improved schools, creating a “win-win” situation. It was published by the Foundation for Educational Choice, a group formed by Milton Friedman, the famous economist. Friedman was the founder of the idea of school choice.
  • A glowing 2010 report cites vast improvements in Sweden’s educational system since school choice was initiated. The report was funded by the Heritage Foundation, a strongly conservative group.
  • A paper called “Education by the Numbers: The Fiscal Effect of School Choice Programs, 1990-2006,” gives encouraging statistics about all the money to be saved by school choice without sacrificing quality. It was published by the Milton & Rose D. Friedman Foundation.


  • A 2011 study points out the “Flaws and Failings” in DC’s school choice system. It was published by the left-leaning People for the American Way, which has a stated mission to support public schools.
  • An earlier paper, “False Choices: Why School Vouchers Threaten Our Children’s Future,” was published by Rethinking Education, founded by a group of Wisconsin teachers to support public schools.

Of course, just because a group supports a concept doesn’t mean its research is flawed. But the groups focus on information that supports their opinions.

So let’s look at test scores. Numbers don’t lie, right?

Wrong again. A report by the Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction showed that students in Milwaukee’s voucher program — the oldest urban school choice program in the country — performed at the same level or lower on standardized tests than students in the public schools. The state Legislative Audit Bureau confirmed the results.

Test scores from Milwaukee Public Schools

But test scores don’t tell the entire story.

Researchers suggest that test score data — by any group — could be skewed by sociological factors. For example, parents who take the initiative to enroll in a voucher program are more active in their children’s education and probably providing other supportive behaviors — reading to their children, home tutoring — that could increase their children’s test scores.

Conversely, since the Milwaukee voucher program targets disadvantaged students, factors other than school quality could be at play in the lower test scores.

The basic differences between public schools and choice schools can also skew test scores. Even without vouchers, students switch from public to private schools, sometimes because they are experiencing academic or disciplinary problems. The private schools have the right to kick a disruptive student back to the public schools. Private schools can also reject students who don’t meet their academic standards. Both situations give private schools the opportunity to pick and choose students, a situation that can affect test scores.

The most comprehensive, unbiased research comes from the University of Arkansas, which created a research center, the School Choice Demonstration Project, “committed to raising and advancing the public’s understanding of the strengths and limitations of school choice policies and programs.” Here is a summary of the findings from the group’s extensive studies of Milwaukee Public Schools:


  • Voucher schools have a lower student/teacher ratio.
  • Schools in both the voucher program and the public system whose students performed poorly on standardized tests were also the ones that closed or no longer received state funds, showing a possible positive effect of school choice on overall educational quality. (However, the researchers cautioned that other socioeconomic factors could also play a role and will continue to monitor the data.)


  • Voucher schools have 6.5 percent fewer minorities than the MPS system.
  • Teachers in voucher schools are less qualified than their public school counterparts with regard to education, certification, and years of experience.
  • On many of the tests and in certain grade levels, students in voucher schools often have lower standardized test scores.

After reviewing numerous other studies, I’ve come to this conclusion: Despite their growing popularity, voucher programs aren’t old enough or large enough to provide us with the cold, hard data we need. In 2006, only 60,000 of 6 million students were in a choice program. That number more than doubled to 150,000 by 2008, but the numbers are still small. Also, states are experimenting with different formats and rules, so consistent studies are difficult.

Conclusions from a detailed study by the Federal Reserve Bank of Chicago, first published in the Annual Review of Economics, show that the answers aren’t currently available:

The best research to date finds relatively small achievement gains for students offered education vouchers, most of which are not statistically different from zero. Further, what little evidence exists regarding the potential for public schools to respond to increased competitive pressure generated by vouchers suggests that one should remain wary that large improvements would result from a more comprehensive voucher system. … Many questions remain unanswered, however, including whether vouchers have longer-run impacts on outcomes such as graduation rates, college enrollment, or even future wages, and whether vouchers might nevertheless provide a cost-neutral alternative to our current system of public education provision at the elementary and secondary school level.

So Republicans who say that school choice will save our schools don’t know for sure. Nor do Democrats who say that choice will destroy public schools.

This issue is too important to become political. Our schools are lagging behind. The future looks bleak, with many talented teachers leaving the profession and fewer  young people taking up teaching careers. Both sides need to address the issue of school reform with open minds, not party lines.


Aud, Susan L., and Foundation Milton & Rose D. Friedman. “Education by the Numbers: The Fiscal Effect of School Choice Programs, 1990-2006. School Choice Issues in Depth.” Milton & Rose D. Friedman Foundation (2007): ERIC. EBSCO. Web. 22 Aug. 2011.

“Book finds voucher programs on rise.” Education Daily 41.57 (2008): 5. Education Research Complete. EBSCO. Web. 30 Aug. 2011.

“Flaws and Failings: A Preliminary Look at the Problems Already Encountered in the Implementation of the District of Columbia’s New Federally Mandated School Voucher Program. Special Report.” People For the American Way (2005): ERIC. EBSCO. Web. 22 Aug. 2011.

Forster, Greg, and Choice Foundation for Educational. “A Win-Win Solution: The Empirical Evidence on School Vouchers. Second Edition.” Foundation for Educational Choice (2011): ERIC. EBSCO. Web. 22 Aug. 2011.

“Issues: Education.” Republican National Committee. n.d. Web. 18 Aug. 2011.

Lips, Dan, and Foundation Heritage. “School Choice in Sweden: An Interview with Thomas Idergard of Timbro.” WebMemo. No. 2828. Heritage Foundation, 2010. ERIC. EBSCO. Web. 22 Aug. 2011.

Lowe, Robert, Barbara Miner, and Ltd. Milwaukee, WI. “Rethinking Schools. False Choices: Why School Vouchers Threaten Our Children’s Future.” Rethinking Schools, 1992. ERIC. EBSCO. Web. 25 Aug. 2011.

McShane, Michael Q. and Patrick J. Wolf. “Milwaukee Longitudinal School Choice Evaluation: Annual School Testing Summary Report 2009-10. SCDP Miwaukee Evaluation. Report #26.” University of Arkansas School Choice Demonstration Project (2011). Web. 24 Aug. 2011. Link:

Ramde, Dinesh. “School voucher program: State auditors find little difference in scores from Milwaukee public schools.” Green Bay Press Gazette, 18 Aug. 2011. Web. 23 Aug 23 2011. Link:

Richards, Erin and Amy Hetzner. “Choice schools not outperforming MPS.” JSOnline. Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, 29 Mar. 2011. Web. 24 Aug. 2011. Link:

Rouse, Cecilia Elena, Lisa Barrow, and IL. Federal Reserve Bank of Chicago. “School Vouchers and Student Achievement: Recent Evidence, Remaining Questions. WP 2008-08.” Federal Reserve Bank of Chicago (2008): ERIC. EBSCO. Web. 22 Aug. 2011.

School Choice Demonstration Project (SCDP) University of Arkansas, et al. “The Milwaukee Parental Choice Program: Descriptive Report on Participating Schools, 2009-2010. SCDP Miwaukee Evaluation. Report #27.” School Choice Demonstration Project (2011): ERIC. EBSCO. Web. 24 Aug. 2011.

“What We Stand For: Education.” Democratic National Committee. n.d. Web. 18 Aug. 2011.

The future of unions: A primer

Union membership is on a steady decline: only about 12 percent of the workforce is unionized, compared to 20 percent in 1983 and higher numbers in earlier years before statistics were tracked.

Numerous theories have been proposed for the decline:

  • Less need for unions due to government interventions like the ones listed in a previous post
  • Increasing number of immigrant workers with a cultural ambiguity toward unions and/or a willingness to work below union wages
  • Increasingly aggressive corporate anti-union tactics, including moving jobs overseas or, in the case of Walmart, closing departments or stores that vote to unionize
  • Increased apathy toward unions as a result of fewer households promoting union ideals to their children
  • Perception of unions as corrupt after scandals involving kickbacks, mob connections, misuse of dues, and pension mishandling in a few private unions
  • Anti-union legislation like “right to work” laws that give incentives for workers not to join unions
  • Less recruiting of new members by unions for financial or political reasons (unionizing large numbers of minorities, for example, could threaten the power of white union leaders)
  • Lack of public relations savvy and strong spokespeople to present a positive image of unions to the public
  • Perception of union workers as lazy and/or overpaid because of a few overly generous or overly protective clauses in some contracts.

Theorists often focus on one as the cause, but all of them contribute to the problem. In addition to addressing those issues, I recommend that unions take these steps:

1. Get rid of the “us versus them” mentality

Two unions in different sectors have shown it’s possible to put aside past grievances and work together:

In October 2009, teachers and administrators in New Haven, Connecticut, agreed to a new contract that included language making it easier for the administrators to fire bad teachers and reward good ones. The contract was spurred in part by a change from the top: Randi Weingarten, national president of the American Federation of Teachers, said, “This is the time to shed the old conflicts and come together. This is the time to forge a new path for our public schools and change public education for our changing world.”

She had her union members’ support. The previous year they had been polled on this question: “When your union deals with issues affecting teaching quality and teachers’ rights, which should be the higher priority—working for professional teaching standards and good teaching, or defining the job rights of teachers who face disciplinary action?” AFT members chose teaching standards as being more important by a margin of 4 to 1.

Similarly, in one of General Electric’s largest manufacturing plants, union workers and managers worked together to receive the Occupational Safety and Health Administration’s Voluntary Protection Program Star status, granted to only about 550 of the country’s 6 million work sites. The Erie, Pa., facility – which makes locomotives and employs 5,600 people – is one of the largest union sites to receive the distinction. Workers and managers put aside previous tensions and worked together to develop ideas for a safer workplace.

The result? Injuries dropped by 80 percent, GE’s bill for workers’ comp dropped, and productivity quadrupled, with the plant setting records for product output. “The relationship we have with the union leadership is the cornerstone of our entire system,” said Gary Quinlan, manager of human resources and production operation.

2. Take individual responsibility.

Members of large unions with national membership need to look at their individual, local situations when working with employers. For example, workers at Kohler, a large plumbing company in Wisconsin, were making some of the highest wages in the country for that sector, to the point where the company was concerned about its viability. The company’s flagship plant employs 4,000 members of United Auto Workers Local 833.

The result of months of negotiation was a five-year contract that asked workers to freeze their wages and contribute more toward healthcare premiums. National UAW leaders disapproved of the plan. But UAW Local 833 voted to accept it anyway, 62 percent to 38 percent.

UAW Local 833 president Dave Bergene, who attended protests in Madison earlier this year against Scott Walker’s plan to strip public union workers of collective bargaining rights, said, “We did that deal with collective bargaining…We don’t mind negotiating healthcare premiums.”

Even members of small unions have a responsibility to speak out if the agenda being driven by union leaders doesn’t match their own. With the negative political attention being given to unions, members must examine their own contracts to make sure they are above reproach in every way.

3. Expand unions’ purpose and visibility

Most unions focus on contract negotiation and political participation to improve the lives of their members. But in “Making Unions Matter Again,” author Jane McAlevey says unions need to evolve out of the mindset that sharing links through electronic media constitutes meaningful dialogue. For example, many union workers are caught up in the housing crisis, but she says union leaders have taken the attitude “That’s someone else’s problem. We only do workers’ issues in the workplace.” She calls for more direct action:

Unions need to start connecting with workers face-to-face through house parties and worksite and home visits to ask what’s keeping them up at night. Then unions should plan direct actions with workers that respond to the issues facing them. … The housing crisis ties directly to the wage crisis, which ties directly to the jobs crisis. … Union organizers—paid staff and rank-and-file workers— should begin to take to the doors and begin to meet hundreds of thousands of workers and galvanize a movement to demand economic justice. If unions do this with unorganized workers and together they win campaigns, it’s more likely these same workers will consider unionization to be a good option in their work life. With a ratio of one organizer for 1,000 organizing conversations in neighborhoods nationwide, just 2,000 union organizers could engage 2 million people—and that’s plenty to create an untenable crisis that the elite will have to deal with.

4. Realize that it’s about perception.

Some people with anti-union sentiments are making an honest mistake, one I made myself. When I started working as a news reporter fresh out of college, the newsroom employees weren’t unionized, but the composing room and press workers were. Our deadline was noon. This was back in the days when the composing process was done by hand – paper strips were pasted onto a large sheet of paper based on a sketch given to composers by the newsroom staff.

I needed a last-minute change on a story. I went back to the composing room to notify the composer assigned to the page.

He wasn’t there.

He was taking his break right before deadline, the most crucial time of the day. His union contract specified that he was entitled to a 15-minute break and that no one could dictate when he took it. So he routinely took it when he was most needed so someone else would pull his weight.

I made a mistake, immediately forming a negative impression of all unions based on an isolated incident. That bad impression stuck with me for years. I didn’t stop to think about how all the other union workers performed their jobs in an efficient and dedicated manner. I didn’t think about how unions prevented many employees in workplaces across the country from being unfairly dismissed or underpaid or harassed. I didn’t consider the contributions unions made toward workplace safety and equality.

It’s an easy mistake to make. But seeing how easy it is to create a negative impression of unions, union members need to make other workers realize the value of unity. If union members don’t garner more support in the face of the current political firestorm, unions as we know them will cease to exist.


Baldwin, Robert E. “Labor Unions are in Decline.” Rpt. in Labor Unions: Opposing Viewpoints. Viqi Wagner, ed. Detroit: Greenhaven Press, 2008. 22-28. Print.

Fitch, Robert. “Labor Unions Are Corrupt and Exploit Workers.” Rpt. in Labor Unions: Opposing Viewpoints. Viqi Wagner, ed. Detroit: Greenhaven Press, 2008. 36-47. Print.

McAlevey, Jane. “Making Unions Matter Again.” Nation 291.25 (2010): 12-14. Academic Search Premier. EBSCO. Web. 26 Mar. 2011.

Sarkis, Karen. “Safety in the union shop.” Occupational Hazards 62.3 (2000): 45. MasterFILE Premier. EBSCO. Web. 26 Mar. 2011.

Schachter, Ron. “Toward a More Perfect Union.” District Administration 46.3 (2010): 28. MasterFILE Premier. EBSCO. Web. 26 Mar. 2011.

Wagner, Viqi. “Introduction.” Labor Unions: Opposing Viewpoints. Viqi Wagner, ed. Detroit: Greenhaven Press, 2008. Print.

—“Chapter Preface: How Have immigration and Globalization Affected Labor Unions?” Labor Unions: Opposing Viewpoints. Viqi Wagner, ed. Detroit: Greenhaven Press, 2008. 59-61. Print.

How much is a teacher worth?

Greedy. Selfish. Overpaid. Riding a gravy train.

These comments have been directed at teachers since the uproar began over Governor Scott Walker’s budget repair bill that eliminates most collective bargaining rights for Wisconsin public workers.

National news commentators fan the flames by citing studies showing that teachers make more than the average American worker – without pointing out that “average American workers” include high-school dropouts working minimum-wage jobs.

Many pundits and citizens are spouting criticism about teacher salaries, but not one has stated his or her answer to the obvious question: Exactly how much do you think a teacher is worth?

My mother – a former teacher – recently remarked that a teacher could make more money managing a fast-food restaurant. I thought she was exaggerating.

She’s not. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics and U.S. Census Bureau, the jobs are comparable:

Average salary for an elementary/middle school teacher: $52,004
Average salary for a food service manager: $57,258.

You may cry out, “But teachers don’t have to work during the summer!”

True. But food service managers aren’t required to have college degrees or in some cases advanced degrees. They aren’t required to take classes to maintain certification, something teachers often do during the summer. And many teachers work more than the minimum required hours per week.

Justifications, you say? Then let’s adjust the numbers by hours worked. According to a BLS compensation chart, teachers make $37 per hour, the same rate as financial analysts and construction supervisors.

Doesn’t seem excessive to me.

Apples to oranges, you say? Different industries? OK, let’s find something on the chart comparable to teaching.

A worker in private-sector training and development – someone who teaches the skills needed for a particular industry – makes $7 per hour more than a public school teacher. And from personal experience, I can tell you that teaching a workshop full of adults is easier than teaching a class of 8-year-olds.

Still not close enough? Let’s use the rate for someone who cares directly for children. According to several online charts, adults who are experienced babysitters earn $12 to $18 per hour with an additional $1 to $2 per extra child. I’ll split the middle and use $16 per hour with $1.50 per each additional child.

The average student-teacher ratio is 15.8, so a babysitter working with those students for 6.7 hours per day and 179.6 days per year, the national averages, would be compensated $45,966.

Of course, this isn’t a strong analogy. Babysitters aren’t required to have college degrees or certification. And they are simply watching the children, not preparing lesson plans, leading educational activities, giving lectures, or grading papers. Yet the similarities in the two salaries and the outcry related to the higher teacher pay suggest a disturbing conclusion: People think teachers are glorified babysitters.

No, no, it’s not that, you insist. It’s all those benefits! Teachers get health insurance and pension plans!

Here’s where the discourse goes even further off course.

Every man-in-the-street interview I’ve seen with a Wisconsin taxpayer and every letter to the editor against teachers has used the same argument: If I don’t have it, why should they? Let’s examine the logic behind that argument.

OK, we’re done. There is no logic. It’s a purely emotional argument, filled with jealousy and displaced anger. Other workers shouldn’t resent that teachers have a pension. They should be angry that their own employers don’t provide one.

The number of private-sector workers participating in an employer-based retirement plan hasn’t changed much in 30 years: about half of all workers have had such a plan through the years. The difference is that more workers now contribute all or part of the funds themselves, as shown on this chart:

Of course, some small companies can’t bear the burden of employee pensions. But giant corporations with booming bottom lines have no excuses, especially since companies have had enough money to boost CEO compensation:

Worker pay has increased 7 percent from 1980 to 2004. CEO salaries have increased 614 percent. But the pundits who decry teacher pensions don’t mention that.

Not the same, you say? Is it different because taxpayers are paying for the teachers’ benefits?

If so, that means taxpayers are saying, “We taxpayers are the employers of the teachers and have the right to set benefits, and we choose to be stingy employers who pay workers as little as possible.”

If that’s your opinion, fine. But admit it! Don’t say, “Teachers don’t deserve it.” Say, “We want a cheap bargain.”

But not all teachers deserve benefits, you claim. Of course. We all have stories about an awful high school English teacher or an eighth-grade social studies teacher with boring lectures. Every job has substandard workers.

But bad teachers keep their jobs and pensions, you say. Yes, it’s true that more bad teachers keep their jobs than workers in other professions. Let’s look at the reasons:

1. Administrators. Almost every school district has a three-year period where teachers can be fired without a reason. If the principal doesn’t like the way a teacher dresses, the teacher can be fired. However, some administrators don’t bother to evaluate new teachers, and some don’t even have the skills to know a good teacher from a bad one. Also, like in any other profession, some administrators hire and retain teachers based on nepotism or favoritism. However, even quality administrators can end up with bad teachers. In some underfunded districts, administrators are saddled with so many other responsibilities that they don’t have time for classroom observations to weed out bad instructors.
2. Unions. Particularly in big cities like New York, Los Angeles, and Chicago, where the teacher unions are larger and more aggressive, strict contract language for firing teachers after three years makes the process time-consuming and expensive – tens of thousands of dollars in legal fees – so those school districts would rather save their time and money and keep the bad teachers.
3. Necessity. Because of poor pay, location, or other factors, some school districts have a hard time recruiting new teachers and have to keep bad ones until they can find replacements.

Sadly, the problem of bad teachers is getting worse because of the vicious cycle caused by teacher pay. When my mother went to college, women didn’t have an open door to careers as engineers, doctors, lawyers, or corporate executives. The brightest women became teachers.

Now, however, women are choosing more lucrative careers. A 2010 study by McKinsey & Co., a global consulting firm, reports that only 23 percent of American teachers come from the top third of available graduates academically. Half come from the bottom third. Finland, the world’s top-ranked system, draws 100 percent of its teachers from the upper tier.

The report quotes the former president of the American Federation of Teachers, one of the nation’s largest teacher unions: “You have in the schools right now, among the teachers who are going to be retiring, very smart people. We’re not getting in now the same kinds of people. It’s disastrous.” That was in 2003.

The report surveyed college students in other fields about why they didn’t choose teaching as a profession. Low salary and low prestige were main reasons.

I don’t blame them. Public school teachers have to constantly defend their salaries – and their very profession – to a largely unappreciative public. As fewer quality graduates are drawn to teaching, more criticism and less money will be directed to our schools. And our children will pay the price for these flaws in our social and educational systems.

My mother retired in 1999 after 25 years of teaching and another 10 years as a principal. She had earned a bachelor’s degree and two master’s degrees. Her final salary was $46,500.

But she has no regrets.

“I’d do it again because I really loved my job and the children,” she says. “But you have to want to do it for the job – the caring for children and wanting them to learn. You can’t want to do it for the money.”

“I think it’s a noble profession,” she says. “The rewards are more than money. The reward is seeing the results you get from your students.”

Teachers know that they will never be rich, and many of them delight in the intrinsic rewards of teaching.

But it would be nice if, along with those rewards, they also got respect.

Please read this fascinating study about our teachers and our schools:

Salary data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics (Search for nctb1346.pdf because the site’s pdf files don’t open as links):

Link to pension data:

Some well-researched sources studying CEO pay trends. The first one features interesting charts comparing our CEO pay to other countries:

Bogle, John C. “Reflections on CEO Compensation.” Academy of Management Perspectives 22.2 (2008): 21-25. Business Source Premier. EBSCO. Web. 11 Mar. 2011.

Kaplan, Steven N. “Are U.S. CEOs Overpaid?.” Academy of Management Perspectives 22.2 (2008): 5-20. Business Source Premier. EBSCO. Web. 11 Mar. 2011.

My assertion that some teachers work more than the minimum hours required is based largely on observations of teachers I know personally, but here are a national survey and some teacher blogs to support the idea:

Stories on the issue of firing teachers:

Student/teacher ratios and other education stats came from this site: