School vouchers have received enormous attention during this presidential campaign. In the two out of the three presidential debates, Governor George W. Bush stated that some parents should be able to use federal funds to for private school tuition, while Vice President Al Gore accused his opponent of wanting to “drain” taxpayer funds from public schools.
No one disputes that urban public schools-the schools most people have in mind when they talk about vouchers-are in trouble. As Diane Ravitch has shown, less than a quarter of poor children in inner-city schools achieve “basic” levels in reading compared to nearly two-thirds of suburban children. Only about a third achieve basic levels in math and science, half the fraction of suburban students.
But whether or not vouchers are the solution is, as Bush and Gore’s opposing statements makes clear, hotly disputed. Current school voucher programs are small, and even the tentative conclusions that researchers draw about their effects are treated as more ideological cannon fodder.
However, this country has a large—$8 billion a year—tested voucher that accomplishes what both sides want. It improves the educational attainment of low income children. It’s not run by a local school system, or even the Department of Education. It’s the federal Housing Voucher program.
Why are school reformers not discussing housing vouchers? Partly because educational policy rarely connects where poor children live to how they perform. Policymakers treat housing and neighborhoods and schools as if they present distinct issues to dealt with separately.
Yet every middle class family understands the tight connection between housing and schools. Millions of these families exercise choice every year, picking neighborhoods, even cities based first and foremost on school quality. Why should poorer families, who also make this connection, have to wait for courts and Congress to untangle the thicket of complicated issues surrounding school vouchers? Why not give more of them housing choices?
Today, the federal housing voucher program supplements rent payments for about 1.7 million families and individuals. Recipients choose a house or apartment available in the private market and contribute about 30 percent of their incomes toward rent, while the federal government pays the difference (up to a locally defined limit).
Housing vouchers benefit families by giving them greater housing mobility, and a chance to find a neighborhood public school that suits their children’s needs.
Findings from the Gautreaux program, which enabled 7000 low-income African-American families to move to urban or suburban neighborhoods in metropolitan Chicago, indicate that children of families who moved to suburban neighborhoods were much more likely to complete high schools, take college-track courses, attend college, and enter the workforce than children from similar families who moved to neighborhoods within the central city.
Greater housing mobility can also improve a family’s access to employment opportunities: mothers in the Gautreaux demonstration who moved to neighborhoods with more educated residents were less likely to remain on welfare.
Vouchers can also benefit businesses by enabling workers to live closer to their places of employment. And there is growing evidence to indicate that an entire region is also better off when fewer people live in neighborhoods of concentrated poverty.
Expanding the housing voucher program should appeal to both conservatives and liberals. Vouchers work with the market, allowing low-income families to rent housing that is created and owned by the private sector. They give low income families the power to choose whether they want to move closer to where they work or to a neighborhood with better schools. They break up the growing concentrations of urban poverty which are at the root of so many social and city challenges.
Housing vouchers do have one consequence that may make them more controversial than school vouchers. School vouchers do not threaten the exclusivity and homogeneity of suburban neighborhoods and school districts. They allow America’s metropolitan areas to remain segregated by race, class and ethnicity. Yet we are kidding ourselves if we think that urban schools are going to be magically transformed—school vouchers or no school vouchers—if they continue to serve only low-income children from neighborhoods of high poverty.
The housing voucher program, of course, is not perfect. It needs to be expanded. It needs an administrative overhaul. But despite these imperfections, it is a way to improve the academic achievement of inner-city school children, which is something Republicans and Democrats, conservatives and liberals, pro-school voucher and anti- school voucher partisans support.
The debate on school vouchers will continue. In the meantime, we need to expand the housing voucher program, and recognize that it can make a difference in many poor children’s education, and future. This is something to act on now—not debate.
Note: This op-ed also appeard in The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel on October 22, 2000