Can Vouchers Help Failing Public Schools? Both presidential candidates embraced different approaches to improve public education. Democratic nominee U.S. Sen. Barack Obama of Illinois and Republican nominee U.S. Sen. John McCain of Arizona have sparred over the issue of giving students vouchers to attend private schools.
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Can Vouchers Help Failing Public Schools?

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Can Vouchers Help Failing Public Schools?

Can Vouchers Help Failing Public Schools?

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Both Senators Barack Obama and John McCain have promised to improve public education, but they've each embraced different approaches. It's an issue that finally got some attention in the last question at their third and final debate, when the two sparred over the issue of giving students vouchers to attend private schools.

Joining us to help sort through the candidate's education plans are Lisa Graham Keegan, she's Senator John McCain's senior adviser on education issues; she's also a former superintendent of public instruction in Arizona, Melody Barnes, the senior domestic policy adviser for Senator Barack Obama's campaign. And in a few moments, we'll also be joined by Hugh Price, he's a former president of the National Urban League and has a strong interest in education issues, and Terry Brown, an educator who's been closely involved with one of the country's most extensive voucher programs. I welcome you all and thank you also much for speaking with us.

Ms. MELODY BARNES (Senior Domestic Policy Adviser, Obama Presidential Campaign): Great. It's wonderful to be here.

Mr. HUGH PRICE (Former President, National Urban League): Thank you.

Mr. TERRY BROWN (President, Saint Anthony School of Milwaukee): Good to be here.

Ms. LISA GRAHAM KEEGAN (Senior Education Adviser; McCain Presidential Campaign): Thank you.

MARTIN: I want to start with what the candidates may agree on. Melody and Lisa, is it accurate to say that they both believe in the value of charter schools, which are schools which are public schools that receive public funding but which have been released from some of the rules and regulations that apply to other schools in return for more accountability. Melody, is that fair to say that the two candidates really agree on the value of charter schools?

Ms. BARNES: I think that's accurate, Michel. I think the big difference is that Senator Obama has said that he's going to double the amount of funding that he wants to put into the federal charter school program to make sure that it's really robust.

MARTIN: Lisa Graham Keegan, what about you? Do you think that's fair, that they agree on this?

Ms. KEEGAN: I think it is fair that they agree on it, and Senator McCain is pretty adamant that the federal government not get involved in talking to states about who can be their charter schools, and so he wants to keep that very much a state issue as to how they want to open schools.

MARTIN: Is there any significant difference, Lisa, that you see between the two on their approach to charter schools?

Ms. KEEGAN: Probably, only in their regulatory approaches. Senator McCain welcomes all governance of public charter schools, private for profit organizations, nonprofit organizations, whoever wants to do it, so long as achievement works for the students.

MARTIN: So let's talk about vouchers. In the debate, it seems to me that a significant point of view difference opened up over vouchers. Senator McCain made it clear that he believes in vouchers as kind of a key to his, at least, K through secondary school education approach.

Lisa, what's the basis of Senator McCain's strong belief? There's a two-year pilot program in Washington, D.C. where the education department's own evaluations show there's no really significant difference in student achievement between those who attended the private schools and those who were eligible to but did not. So what's the basis of Senator McCain's strong belief in this?

Ms. KEEGAN: Well, all over the country, voucher programs have actually, including in that IES study, including in that study, not significant, that's absolutely right statistically, but absolute trends of improvement and unequivocally, parents feel their kids are safer in these environments and more disciplined environments. They're more hopeful for them. The philosophy Senator McCain has is, this about organizing education around the needs of kids.

Senator Obama's mother chose to send him to a private school. She apparently felt that was a good choice. They had somebody who would offer scholarship to him. Senator McCain feels as though that's our primary objective, get kids into the schools their parents feel will be best for them and then verify that through audits and the kind of testing that's important to do. It's important to remember, in the D.C. system, these kids came out of, we've been failing these kids for quite some time, and any option that's going to be academically beneficial over time and that parents want to choose is one they ought to have as part of a public system.

MARTIN: Melody?

Ms. BARNES: Well, Senator Obama believes that we have to have public school choice. And in fact, his proposal includes, as I said before, very robust public school choice - charter schools, magnet schools, theme-based schools, not for profit schools, over a half of dozen different choices, and he wants to make sure that happens through an innovation schools fund.

What Senator McCain has done is, yes, as Lisa says, given credence to the D.C. program and said he'll slightly expand that program, but he's really having an argument that supports one district in the country. His plan isn't expansive with regards to the rest of the country, so millions of children will be left behind. It's not real choice. What Senator Obama wants to do is make sure that parents have the real choices that their children need so they can compete in the 21st century.

MARTIN: I'm going to ask our guests to stay with us while we take a short break. When we come back, we'll hear more perspectives on education policy. We've been hearing from Lisa Graham Keegan, she's a senior adviser on education issues with the McCain campaign, and Melody Barnes, senior domestic policy adviser to Senator Barack Obama's campaign. I'm Michel Martin, and this is Tell Me More from NPR News. We'll be back after a short break.

I'm Michel Martin, and this is Tell Me More from NPR News. Coming up, singer/songwriter Rachael Yamagata tells us about her new CD. But first, we're going to continue our conversation about the candidates and their education policies. We've been speaking with Lisa Graham Keegan, she's a senior education adviser for the McCain campaign, Melody Barnes, senior domestic policy adviser for Senator Barack Obama's campaign.

We're going to be joined now by Hugh Price, he's a visiting professor of public and international affairs at Princeton University, and also joining us now is Terry Brown, president of Saint Anthony School of Milwaukee. It's a school with a majority of students who are using vouchers to pay tuition. And we want to hear about Terry Brown's experience there.

Hugh Price, let me go to you first. As the president of National Urban League, you are firmly opposed to the voucher system, and Florida almost became the first state to implement this voucher program statewide. What's wrong with vouchers, in your view? You hear Lisa Graham Keegan say that many people have this option, and they feel that poor, middle class parents ought to have the same options to choose educational systems for their kids that wealthier parents have. What's wrong with it?

Mr. PRICE: Well, I certainly understand why parents would want to try to get as many options as possible, but the problem is that vouchers become a proxy for privatizing the nation's commitment to educate children in public schools free of charge. When you look at how vouchers work, and their first cousins are tax credits, you start by saying, OK, let's give vouchers to parents and children who want to exit troubled schools. The next thing you know, the discussion turns to, well, let's give vouchers to any child who is exiting a public school and who wants to go to a non-public school.

Then it becomes a question of, well, let's provide vouchers or tax credits for any child who is already in a private, parochial, or sectarian school. And just yesterday, there was an interesting column in the New York Post by a fellow named Adam Schaeffer who argued that, in this economy, a lot of parents who already have their children in non-public schools are going to be stressed financially. They may want to send their children to public school, but it'd be a lot cheaper to provide tax credits for those children to stay where they are than to educate them in public schools.

So the whole idea of an obligation to provide a free public education suddenly morphs into the notion of an entitlement for any parent who has a child in any kind of non-public school, and the financial drain on the schools under those circumstances would be tremendous. So vouchers and tax credits, all of which are tax expenditure policies, are proxies for privatizing what has been a sacred public obligation.

MARTIN: But what's wrong with that if the students are better served by that?

Mr. PRICE: Well, it's not clear from the evidence that the students are better served. As you said, you've got mixed results. Secondly, we talked about choice, but in many respects, that's just an illusion because a lot of non-public schools are not going to admit children who are exiting from troubled public schools, so a bunch of new schools get created, some of which work well when they're led by really strong educators who know what they're doing. But some of them, as is the case with charters, don't necessarily perform very well. So in many respects, choice is an illusion as well because the parents of children in troubled public schools don't have all that much choice.

MARTIN: Terry, let's hear from you. Your school has, as I understand it, over 1,000 students. The majority are there because of vouchers. Tell me a little bit about the students who have chosen St. Anthony and where would they be if they weren't in St. Anthony?

Mr. BROWN: Well, they'd probably be in the local government schools or in the charter schools. In the Milwaukee program, of course, we have to accept any child that applies to the school so there's protections that schools are not selecting children that they feel will be better equipped to perform at the school, that every school is obligated to educate any child that applies to a school in Milwaukee.

In Milwaukee, we have a different view. I think we're leading the nation in this. We have a different view of what is a public school, what is a school serving the public interest. We believe all schools are serving the public interest in Milwaukee, and parents should be able to choose which school the children go to. They're the best person to make that decision, and the money that the taxpayers so generously provide for education should follow the child.

And in Milwaukee, about 20 percent of the children are attending private schools, and about 18 percent of that 20 percent are on vouchers. That's significantly less than the percentage of children of public school teachers in Milwaukee whose children attend private schools, which is about 30 percent for the entire city. And for those teachers that reside in the center of the city, about 45 percent of those teachers send their kids to private schools.

MARTIN: Have you seen achievement gains among the children who are attending private schools, and how does that compare to the children who still attend public schools?

Mr. BROWN: Well, I think what we're seeing is achievement gains across the board in every sector of the market here in Milwaukee. And in the traditional government schools, the charter schools, and the private and religious schools, all sectors are improving. We see it directly at our school. We see the difference between a child that's there for one year versus several years.

MARTIN: Why do you think that is? Do you think that the other schools are working? I mean, that's the theory behind vouchers. The competition will make all the schools work harder.

Mr. BROWN: All right, I think it's no longer a theory in Milwaukee. Competition spurs every school to do better. Essentially, if you're in the center city of Milwaukee, there's no economic consequence for parents to move from one school to the next. We provide a free education in Milwaukee no matter which sector you choose, and so schools have to create programs that are pleasing to the parents and that are academically rigorous and support the values the parents have in their own homes.

MARTIN: Melody, what about that?

Ms. BARNES: Well, when experts have looked at not only the Milwaukee program, but also Cleveland, the District of Columbia, and not just look at a period of a year but looked over several years, what they found in tracking those students is, in fact, what we've been saying for the past few minutes, that the results are very, very limited. That, in fact, there's no real significant difference.

And, in fact, that's led experts - people like Sol Stern, people like Chester Finn, proponents of private school vouchers to say, theoretically, this was a good idea, but it's not playing out the way we thought it would. And I think that goes back to the point that, at the root of this is the fact that parents want choices. We can have choices within the public school system and make sure that we put the proper resources there as well as in our public schools to make sure that parents are educating their children in the way they think that's best suited for them.

MARTIN: Lisa Graham Keegan, what about that? I mean, I heard you say when we were first talking about these issues that parents, in essence, they feel better about the choices that their kids may have, but if there's no significant measurable achievement difference, why is that a good use of taxpayer money? Why wouldn't it be better to devote those resources to the charter schools which are open to all and which do have the rubric of public accountability for taxpayer dollars?

Ms. KEEGAN: Well, first of all, that's not the case that there isn't achievement. And you heard Terry say it, and again, I have to disagree that the studies said they did not.

MARTIN: No, the study says significant achievement. That's what they say, at least that's what the Education Department's evaluation of the two-year pilot program in D.C. says, significant achievement.

Ms. KEEGAN: But there are other studies that say there are, in fact, significant gains, particularly in mathematics and particularly with African-American kids. It's also the case of a study just came out and said that, in counties that have at least 50 percent private education in their sector, they have better public schools, and Terry was just talking about the fact that you get an increase when you have competitive environments. This is about public education, so this is not about choosing the kids that go into private schools.

When these programs are created, they're created in ways that say, look, you have to accept your kids by lottery. That's true in Milwaukee. It's true in D.C. It's true everywhere there's been publicly funded vouchers. You also have to report out on how those schools do. So in a large sense, it's very much like a public charter school setting.

Senator McCain's feeling is, the public education definition has got to expand to be based on the needs of kids. Let this money follow kids into schools that can work for them, report out on the quality of their achievement, make sure the schools have to accept who comes. If you don't want to participate in that, you don't have to. But if you're going to be part of a public system, you accept all kids who come, and you agree to report out how you do, and the money follows those kids, and then you make a decision.

And for sure, in communities that have embraced this over time, and Milwaukee's one of them, and I encourage people to really take a look at Milwaukee because it's the longest standing program in the country. It has made a huge difference in people's lives and in serving the public through those children.

MARTIN: If you're just joining us, I'm speaking with Lisa Graham Keegan, Melody Barnes, Terry Brown, and Hugh Price about education policy, school vouchers, and charter schools. And, of course, we want to hear from you. Are your children participating in a voucher program or attending a charter school? We'd like to know about your experiences. To tell us, you can go to our website at or call our comment line at 202-842-3522.

Hugh Price, what about Lisa Graham Keegan's point, one is that evaluation has to sort of take place over time, and secondly, there are studies showing that there are achievements being made with time.

Mr. PRICE: The children who are leaving public schools with vouchers, and their families are highly motivated, so you may well have a selection biases, as the evaluators say, in who's being compared to whom. I want to make sure that we don't lose sight of the larger question, which is, vouchers are a profound step toward privatizing the obligation to educate children, and vouchers and tax credits are ways of financing the ability of parents to send their children, not just the children in urban schools, not just the children in trouble schools, but any parent who wants to send a child to a non-public school will be subsidized by the public sectors to do that.

What that does is grievously undermine public financing for public schools. It's like short changing the infrastructure that we need to look forward. And I worry about the children who are left in the public schools, who don't have the choices because schools won't admit them or because slots don't exist and also because new kinds of schools get created that may or may not be sound. So, we've got a lot of work to do in public schools. I think charters provide abundant choice and in a publicly finance and publicly scrutinized and publicly accountable way, but they open the door to public sector financing of private school choice.

MARTIN: We only have a couple of minutes left, and I just - I do want to give everybody a chance to say one more thing, but I did note that, you know, education was the cornerstone of President George W. Bush's sort of domestic policy, and as, of course, we know, sort of world events intervened to - and a lot of people think kind of lowered education as a priority for the country.

And as I also pointed out, that that was the last question in the last debate that the two candidates answered before we went on into the sort of the final stretch of the fall campaign. So I wanted to ask each of you, are you concerned that education will be a priority in the next administration, given all the challenges that the country faces, and what would you like the next administration to do? What's the top priority in education policy whoever the next president is, and so, Hugh, why don't I start with you?

Mr. PRICE: I think that education will be a priority. I don't know where it'll be on the - in the queue. I mean, there's a lot that's going to be - season the next president's attention, whoever it is. I would love to see the administration focus on strengthening public schools by some of the kinds of things that Senator Obama has proposed, frankly.

And I would like to call and raise that by saying, I think we need a flat-out effort to raise the reading and math capabilities of children who are lagging behind by using best practices and investing in those kinds of initiatives. And privatizing education and providing vouchers will not do that for kids who are lagging way behind. I think we have to get them where they are and lift their achievement levels. So I think strengthening the public schools, providing more charters, and really focusing on raising the achievement levels of low achievers would be my top priorities.

MARTIN: Terry Brown, what about you?

Mr. BROWN: Well, I think expansion of options and choice for parents. I don't think any of us, if we're speaking of any other sector other than education, could think of an example where a monopoly could innovate and become efficient and provide the best product at the lowest cost for the taxpayers. We only think about that in education. What we really need to do is bring everybody the table, public, private, religious, and charter schools, and take a look at who best serves the needs of parents, each individual parent. Let the parents choose, and let's let the dollars follow the child, and I think we'll have real improvement in quick time if we expand parent options.

MARTIN: Are you worried that education won't have the priority that you'd like to see given all the challenges the country is facing? Terry? Mr. BROWN: I would fear that, you know, I think that we saw that in the campaign. I wished we would have seen on both sides more attention to education. Senator Obama was in Milwaukee and spoke to the editorial board here in Milwaukee and promised that he would not have any preconceived notions about school choice, that he would look at what's happened in Milwaukee and then make a decision after that. But it looks like he may not be discarding some of those preconceived notions at this point.

MARTIN: All right, Melody Barnes?

Ms. BARNES: In an Obama administration, education will be front and center. Senator Obama has said that repeatedly and made the point that this is one of the most important investments that we can make, both in our country and in our children. And he's proposed putting money into early education, where we know we see at least an eight-fold return on the investment.

He's also talked about reform and accountability in our public schools and spoken very forcefully to the idea of public school choice in providing parents and students with a range of options. And he's willing to put the resources, as well as accountability on the table, which we believe is necessary and very different from, you know, Senator McCain's proposed across the board discretionary spending cut, which will really hamstring his ability to make proper investments.

MARTIN: And a brief thought about college, Melody Barnes. We didn't talk about college. We've been talking about K through 12, but college, briefly?

Ms. BARNES: Right. Senator Obama has spoken to college affordability. He's put on the table a $4,000 tax cut, expanding Pell Grants. One of the first bills he introduced when he got into the Senate was an expansion of Pell Grants, which make it easier for kids to go to school. And also, the idea of community colleges, which stand in the forefront as being an important resource, and something that's often been left behind. So he really touches on education at every level, from zero all the way through college and community college education.

MARTIN: Lisa Graham Keegan?

Ms. KEEGAN: Well, I do think Senator McCain makes it a huge priority. He's given a number of speeches. I think it's been too bad for both candidates, frankly, that they've spoken about it quite a bit and doesn't seem to get much resonance, so - there's a lot of other stuff going on.

But it's a huge priority for him, best typified by his signing on to Joel Klein and Reverend Sharpton's Education Equality Act. That is unequivocally sound movement that says, look, this is about what's good for kids and not what's good about adults and tradition, and obviously, we've got problems getting the best teachers into the most needy classrooms. And we have to cast aside a lot of the bureaucratic and sort of collectively bargained prohibitions to getting excellent teachers in front of the kids that need them.

Also the highest priority of the Citizens Commission on Civil Rights, and as Senator McCain has said, this is the civil rights issue of our time. If we are not open to every possible option for kids, there's not much chance that we're going to get a lot better.

MARTIN: Lisa Graham Keegan is a senior adviser to Senator John McCain's presidential campaign for education issues. She joined from Philadelphia. Melody Barnes is the senior domestic policy adviser for Senator Barack Obama's campaign. She was kind enough to join us in our Washington D.C. studios. Hugh Price is the former president of the National Urban League. He joined us from the studios of Princeton University, where he's a visiting professor of public and international affairs. And Terry Brown is director of St. Anthony School in Milwaukee, and he was kind enough to join us from Wisconsin Public Radio. I thank you all so much for speaking with us.

Ms. BARNES: Great.

Ms. KEEGAN: Thanks.

Mr. PRICE: Thank you.

Mr. BROWN: Thanks for having us.

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