Report: Too Early To Gauge Effectiveness Of Vouchers

By GREG TOPPO, AP Education Writer

WASHINGTON (AP) - Parents of inner-city students love the government vouchers that allow their children to attend private schools, but it isn't clear whether such programs can work for millions of students nationwide, a study says.

Researchers with RAND, a California think tank, confirmed what supporters have long said: That vouchers are popular and seem to bring modest benefits to low-income black students in troubled schools.

But the study said there is not enough evidence to say whether expanding a few existing, small programs would help students in other ethnic groups.

About 3,800 students in Cleveland receive up to $2,250 in tuition.

The study also said charter school programs seem beneficial, but that there's not enough evidence these programs make a dramatic improvement in learning.

"For most of the key questions, direct evaluations of vouchers and charter schools have not yet provided clear answers," researchers said.

Calling for more long-term data on the academic progress of voucher and charter school students, the study said there's little research comparing such programs' effects to more conventional reforms such as reducing class size and improving teacher training.

Federal vouchers were a centerpiece of President Bush's education reform effort, but Republicans could not muster enough support for them last spring. New funding for charter schools will probably be included in Bush's education bill, which Congress hopes to finish this month.

Charter schools, which have become popular over the past decade, are public schools that agree to improve student performance in exchange for greater freedom from state and local rules.

Supporters say vouchers, also known as school choice, give children an escape from failing public schools and force administrators to compete for business. Opponents say vouchers siphon precious public money from needy schools and create an unconstitutional link between church and state.

The Supreme Court has agreed to decide whether Cleveland's program is a constitutional use of taxpayer money. A high court ruling is expected by June.

Milwaukee has about 10,000 low-income students attend school with $5,300 in state vouchers. In Florida, children with disabilities are eligible for vouchers of nearly $7,000 -- about 3,900 students are enrolled this fall.

Nationwide, about 53 million students attend public or private schools.

(Copyright 2001 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)