Making Schools Work For The Rich And The Poor

by Ronald J. Sider

Ronald J. Sider is president of Evangelicals for Social Action and a professor of theology at Eastern Baptist Theological Seminary.

This article is excerpted from Just Generosity: A New Vision for Overcoming Poverty in America, Baker Books. It appeared in the Christian Century, Aug. 25-Sep. 1, l999; pp 802-809; copyright by the Christian Century Foundation and used by permission. This text was prepared for Religion Online by John C. Purdy.


The author argues for large expenditures in public education to remedy the ills of inner-city school. Money should be spent to experiment both with school vouchers and with other reforms.

Raymond Abbott is a high school dropout from Camden, New Jersey, one of the poorest cities in America with over 60 percent of its residents on welfare. The schools Raymond attended -- indeed, virtually all the schools in Camden -- were and are a disaster. During Raymond's academic years, Camden's schools spent about one-half as much per student as did schools in Princeton, New Jersey. According to the Philadelphia Inquirer, Camden schools could not afford science, art, music, or physical education teachers, or staff to detect learning disabilities. As a result, Raymond's learning disabilities went undiagnosed, and the system promoted him year by year even though he was learning very little. When he dropped out of high school, he could read only at the seventh grade level.

Raymond Abbott's name appeared as lead plaintiff in a court case brought by Camden and several other poor school districts against the State of New Jersey, demanding that the state provide equal funding for all schools. Seven years later, the judge agreed with the poor districts, but it was too late for Raymond. By then he was a cocaine addict living in the Camden County jail. "It took a judge seven years and 607 pages," the Philadelphia Inquirer reported, "to explain why children in New Jersey's poor cities deserve the same basic education as kids in the state's affluent suburbs." The judicial decision would have meant more to Raymond, the paper lamented, if it had come.. . when there was still a chance to teach him something."

Some people argued that lack of money is not the problem in places like Camden, but the judge was not convinced. He cited the explanation given by a wealthy district for its request to back out of a cross-busing plan with a poor district: The wealthy district did not want to integrate with the poor district because of the latter's "old and dilapidated buildings, lack of adequate equipment and materials, [and] lack of science programs."

A black principal from Camden High is more blunt. When she is invited to speak at places like Princeton and people try to argue that it makes little difference that Camden spends $4,000 and Princeton $8,000 per student, she retorts, "If you don't believe that money makes a difference, let your children go to school in Camden. Trade with our children. When I say this, people will not meet my eyes. They stare down at the floor."

I am quite willing to grant that the inequities in education in this country are not only or primarily a matter of funding. Lingering racism, unsafe drug-infested neighborhoods, dysfunctional families, malnutrition, oversized administrative bureaucracies, unresponsive teachers' unions, and peer pressure that mocks academic success all play a role in undermining education. Nevertheless, funding is a major problem, and it's a sign of the pressing need for fundamental educational reform.

What direction should that reform take? It should be undertaken with these imperatives in mind:

1) Demand equity. Every child, regardless of his or her family's race, religion or income, should have full access to quality education so that he or she has the opportunity to realize God-given abilities. At the very least, therefore, schools for poor and minority children should have as much funding per student, as many qualified teachers and as good physical facilities as other schools.

2)Allow families to choose. Since primary responsibility for nurturing children rests with the Family, parents should be able to choose the kind of school they want for their children. Biblical principles require what the United Nations' Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1948) stipulates: "Parents have a prior right to choose the kind of education that shall be given to their children" (Art. 26,3).

3) Respect freedom and pluralism. The educational system should be organized in a way that offers genuine freedom and treats every religious tradition fairly, neither discriminating against nor benefiting any unequally. The amazing diversity of moral, religious and philosophical perspectives in contemporary society makes impossible any effort to teach only one perspective -- whether secularism or historic Christianity -- in all schoo1s.

4) Promote the common good. To promote the common good, society must use government's powers of taxation to ensure that every child has access to the necessary funds for an excellent education. Since equal access to education for all is both morally right and in the long-term interest of everyone, we dare not privatize the funding of education. Making each child's access to education dependent on his or her family's economic status condemns the poor to inferior education in blatant defiance of biblical norms.

The following changes would move us in the right direction to meet the goals just outlined.

Decentralized governance and administration. Reduce bureaucracy and administrative overhead and promote innovation, flexibility and competition among schools.

Smaller schools. Smaller schools have proven to be more effective than larger schools, especially with poor children.

Competition. Schools will improve if the system allows competition and closes schools that parents do not choose.

Common curriculum in the basics. It is especially important for poor and minority students that all schools effectively teach the basics in reading, math, English (oral and written) and science that are essential to succeed in society.

Diversity of schools. We need more experimentation with a wide range of teaching methods, patterns of governance, and underlying philosophical and religious foundations while still maintaining an overall framework in which all schools teach the basics.

High expectations. Teachers should place high demands on every student, and administrators should demand excellent teaching from every teacher.

Standardized tests. Parents, students and society should require objective measures of academic success to make informed decisions.

Broad social, economic and racial mix. One of the best established facts of educational research is that the educational background and aspirations of fellow students significantly determine what a student will achieve. This is especially important for low-income students who learn more in schools with relatively few rather than a majority of low-income students.

More parental control. If parents have more power in shaping where and what their children study, they will be more involved in the educational progress.

More teacher incentives. We need more incentives for well-qualified teachers to make a long-term commitment to teach disadvantaged children.

Adequate funding. Every state should determine how much high-quality education costs and guarantee that every school -- especially those serving poor and minority children -- has at least that much money.

Is there any concrete reform that would substantially move public education in the direction just sketched? Obviously, no one reform by itself is enough. Adequate funding, a common curriculum in the basics, and standardized tests would all help. More and more people today, however, believe that nothing short of sweeping reform that breaks up the monopoly of large, centralized, bureaucratic school systems will work. There is also a growing demand for educational vouchers.

Vouchers -- sometimes called public scholarships -- would offer parents an "educational check" that could be cashed at any eligible school, whether public or private. Twenty years ago only a conservative minority endorsed vouchers. Today a majority does.

Why the change? Partly the abysmal failure of inner-city public schools. Partly the fact that private Catholic schools do better with disadvantaged children at much less cost. Partly because limited tests of parental choice offer promising preliminary results. Partly because this one reform would dramatically implement many of the desired changes outlined above: more and smaller schools, less bureaucracy and administrative overhead, more competition, more parental control, more diversity of schools, and maybe even more racial integration.

Should we switch to a voucher system for American elementary and secondary education? No. We do not know enough to undertake such a sweeping change. Should we test the use of vouchers? Yes. Such a proposal, of course, is enormously controversial. People of good will argue on both sides. Many think that the best thing to do is simply invest more resources in a cluster of interrelated changes within the present system. Others are convinced the problems are too deeply entrenched for that to work.

I believe the best way for us to proceed is to invest several billion dollars in a massive five-year test of both proposals. Since the most severe problems are in inner-city schools, we should focus our efforts at reform there. Why not spend equal money on two parallel tests: a test of vouchers in a dozen places, and a test of the best "reform the public schools" proposals in a dozen other places. Careful research can then tell us which approach is more successful, and especially which approach is better for poor and minority children. Let's begin by examining the two reform options.

Reform the Public Schools: No widely endorsed package of comprehensive reforms exists. As John Mitchell of the American Federation of Teachers told me, every local situation is different, and therefore, no one reform package applies everywhere.

Widely affirmed proposals call for the restructure of low-performing schools, more emphasis on the basics, safer classrooms, more rigorous graduation standards, periodic measurement of progress through some kind of standardized tests, longer days and year-round schooling, decentralization into smaller learning communities and greater freedom for those smaller units, smaller classes, better-qualified teachers and improved salaries, more parental input and more equitable funding.

If a dozen different public school systems were to embark on a five-year experiment as part of a larger nation-wide experiment encouraged by federal dollars, local teams of educators, parents and community leaders would need to devise appropriate local models. They would also need to report to state and federal educational officials so that the methods and results of the different local public school reforms could be compared to each other and to voucher experiments.

Educational Vouchers: Vouchers are still relatively new to many Americans. Therefore, before I outline a concrete proposal, it is essential to examine the pros and cons of vouchers.

On the pro side: First, black parents want vouchers. Recent polls consistently show that African-Americans, especially poorer, inner-city people and those with school-age children favor vouchers more than do middle-class whites. In a recent nationwide survey, Professor Terry Moe found that 79 percent of inner-city poor people favored vouchers and 59 percent of whites in more advantaged communities favored them. A vast majority of both inner-city poor and advantaged whites agreed that school choice would be "especially helpful to low-income kids, because their public schools tend to have the most problems." Another poll in 1997 found that 72 percent of blacks and 48 percent of the general population endorsed vouchers. Still a third national survey (1997) discovered not only that a strong majority of African-Americans (57 percent) and Hispanics (65 percent) favored vouchers, but also that it was precisely the black age group most likely to have children in the public schools (those 26 to 35) who supported vouchers most strongly (86.5 percent!). We ought to listen carefully to those whose children suffer in the worst schools.

Vouchers would give the poor what everybody else already has. Most Americans now have school choice -- it is called enough money to buy a private education or a house in a suburb with a good educational system. We all know that middle-class parents with young children leave the city to seek better schools. Seventy-two percent of all families with incomes over $50,000 have their children in private schools, public schools they specifically chose (e.g., magnet schools) or schools selected through a conscious choice about where to live. The poor are simply requesting the parental choice that middle-class Americans already enjoy.

Private schools are more successful -- especially with disadvantaged children. One study concluded: "The achievement growth rates of Catholic school attendance are especially strong for students who are in one way or another disadvantaged: lower socio-economic status, black, or Hispanic." The dropout rates are strikingly lower in Catholic schools than public schools, even in the case of those at special risk of dropping out. And the reason does not seem to be different policies on admission or expulsion but the different atmosphere of Catholic schools.

A more recent study is even more striking: "The achievement of students in Catholic high schools was less dependent on family background and personal circumstances than was true in the public schools." In fact, "Catholic high schools seem to correct the tragedy where minority students fall further and further behind white students the longer they stay in school." This study found that "the achievement advantage of white over minority students . . . increases in public schools during the last two years of schooling, whereas the minority gap actually decreases in Catholic schools."

Equally striking is the evidence surrounding college enrollment. Students from every racial group are more likely to attend college if they go to a Catholic school, but the positive impact is greatest for urban minorities. If an urban minority student goes to a Catholic high school, the probability of graduating from college jumps from 11 percent to 27 percent.

Recent analysis of the widely followed voucher experiment in Milwaukee shows that low-income minority students who attended private schools scored substantially better in reading and math after four years than those who remained in public schools. And it cost less! In fact, the researchers report that "if similar success could be achieved for all minority students nationwide, it could close the gap between white and minority test scores by at least a third, possibly by more than half."

Everyone -- teachers, parents, students -- is more satisfied with private schools. That is the clear finding of a recent report by the U.S. Department of Education's National Center for Education Statistics. In spite of much lower salaries ($ 12,000-$20,000 less per year!), teachers in private schools were more than three times as likely as public school teachers to say they are "highly satisfied" with their jobs. Less than half (48.7 percent) of parents whose children were assigned to a public school were satisfied, but 82.5 percent of parents who chose a private school were. "In their answers to almost all questions, parents are more enthusiastic about choice schools, usually by large margins." And the private school students feel more safe, are only a quarter as likely to be apathetic, and one-sixth as likely to treat their teachers with disrespect.

Private schools do more with less. In 1993-94 the average tuition in Catholic schools was $1,600 at the elementary level and $3,600 for high school. Average public school expenditures per pupil for the same years were $5,900. New York's Cardinal John O'Connor has repeatedly volunteered to accept the lowest 5 percent of the city's public school students at Catholic schools -- at about one-third the cost.

Public schoolteachers prefer private schools for their own children. Public schoolteachers in central cities are far more likely than the average central city resident to send their own children to private schools. In fact, when pushed to estimate the percentage of urban-area school teachers with school-age children in private schools, Keith Geiger, the president of the National Education Association, replied: "It's about 40 percent." Why should we force poor parents to send their children to public schools that the teachers themselves do not trust with their own children?

Competition forces change. Many recent analysts argue that lack of competition is a central reason for the failure of inner-city schools. Vouchers would enable a wide range of non-government schools to compete with the current government-operated educational monopoly. In a competitive market, you either satisfy customers or close.

Pluralism and morals. Moral foundations are essential for good education. In an increasingly pluralistic society, however, it becomes harder and harder to define a common morality that all can accept. It is not fair, for example, to compel a child being raised by a gay couple to attend a school in which the teachers say homosexual practice is sin. Nor is it fair to compel a child from a home that embraces historic Christian sexual norms to attend a school in which the teachers portray homosexual practice or open marriage as just one of many equally acceptable lifestyle options. With a voucher system, every group has full freedom to sponsor a school grounded in its own moral and religious beliefs. Such a system respects society's pluralism in a way that allows vigorous moral teaching in the schools.

An educational experience grounded in historic Judeo-Christian morality is even more important at a time when a weakened family structure increasingly fails more children. A large majority of inner-city children live in single-parent homes. Small, faith-based schools with religiously motivated teachers are more likely to offer the special attention, loving intimacy and moral standards hat an increasing number of dysfunctional homes cannot provide.

Vouchers strengthen the family. By returning effective control of education to the family, vouchers would enormously strengthen this crucial institution in society. Parents rather than the state would again control one of the most significant influences shaping their children. As a result, parents would be able to pass on their moral commitments through schools of their choice.

Most democracies permit parental choice. In all of the countries of the European Union (except Greece and Italy) and in Australia, New Zealand, Scandinavia and Japan, parents can choose to send their children to nongovernment schools (usually including religious schools) and receive government tax dollars to pay for tuition. In most cases, tax revenues pay the costs at private schools up to the expenditures per pupil in government-operated schools.

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights states that "parents have a prior right to choose the kind of education that shall be given to their children." Unlike the United States, most democracies think this means that tax dollars should accompany every student whether they attend government-operated or privately operated schools.

With such strong supportive arguments, why do many people still oppose a major test of vouchers?

There are six important criticisms: First, vouchers will undermine democratic society. Some argue that a democracy needs public schools that all students attend so all learn shared values and discover how to work together across class and racial lines. Those who hold this view believe that if people from different religious groups attend separate schools, our society may fly apart as has that of the Balkans, where Catholic Croatians, Orthodox Serbs and Bosnian Muslims slaughter each other.

There are two problems with this argument. First, this vision of common schools that all class and racial groups attend is a myth. Today, the rich attend private schools and elite public schools in wealthy suburbs. Efforts at effective desegregation of largely minority inner-city schools and largely white suburban schools have failed. If the unity of society requires that children from all different backgrounds go to school together, then we must outlaw private schools and compel suburban children to go to the same schools inner-city children attend. No major antivoucher voice promotes that politically impossible suggestion.

Second, the data we have do not suggest more intolerance on the part of private school students. Rather, evidence suggests that students in private schools are at least as tolerant as those in public schools. A 1992 survey by the U.S. Department of Education discovered that private school students had more community spirit and were more likely to value helping others and to volunteer in community causes. A very recent study discovered that families with children in private schools are also significantly more involved in the common civic life of the community (voting, visiting the local public library, volunteering.) In one study of a fundamentalist Protestant academy (Bethany Bible Academy), a Jewish intellectual found the Bethany students more tolerant on issues of race, religion and freedom of speech and less concerned with making a lot of money than their public school peers. Widespread attendance at religious schools in a number of Western democracies, including Britain, Australia, France, Germany, the Netherlands and Canada, has not resulted in more religious intolerance.

Vouchers will increase racial segregation. It is true that private academies for white students sprang up in the South after the historic Supreme Court decision Brown v. Board of Education in 1954. Won't vouchers simply help whites flee to segregated schools? In reality, as a recent article in the prestigious Brookings Review points out, private schools today are more integrated than the public schools. The U.S. Department of Education reports that in 1992,37 percent of private school students but only 18 percent of public school students attended schools in which the number of minority students was close to the national average. Fifty-five percent of public school students are in schools in which over 90 percent of all students are white or minority. Only 41 percent of private school students attend such overwhelmingly segregated schools. The same study also found that in private schools students are more likely to form cross-racial friendships. Private school students, teachers and administrators all report fewer racial problems than in public schools.

Nationally, in 1990-91, Catholic schools were 25.2 percent minority, and conservative Protestant schools were 18 percent minority. While court-mandated school integration has largely failed, integration in private schools that parents freely choose surpasses public schools. It may be that parental choice via vouchers -- especially if the voucher mechanism favors integration -- offers the best hope today for increasing integration in our schools. As Harvard professor Paul E. Peterson notes, one "attraction of inner-city school choice is the possibility that a choice-based system could reduce the racial isolation within the central city."

Choice programs cream off the best students, leaving the poor and marginalized behind. Sandra Feldman, the president of the American Federation of Teachers, complains that vouchers take "money away from inner-city schools so a few selected children can get vouchers to attend private schools, while the majority of equally deserving kids, who remain in the public schools, are ignored."

"Creaming" already happens. Well-to-do children go to private schools or elite suburban public schools. In most big cities, magnet schools, gifted classes and honors tracks siphon off the most gifted. The only question is whether we will grant the poor and disadvantaged the choice that the majority already enjoy.

How we structure a voucher plan is, of course, crucial. First of all, it should cover at least all students with family incomes below 150 to 200 percent of the poverty level. Voucher programs that affect only a fraction of students do leave others behind, but that is not an argument against vouchers; it is an argument in favor of a voucher plan that is comprehensive. Weighted vouchers so that children with special needs receive extra funds are also essential. I would also favor adding 15 percent to the vouchers of students from families with incomes below the poverty level.

Done right a voucher model could correct some of the unfairness that present creaming produces.

Some parents will use their vouchers unwisely. Some dysfunctional parents will not even care enough to choose a school. Other poorly educated parents, lacking the time and knowledge to shop and compare, will choose badly. Again, this is a valid concern. There will be a small percent of highly dysfunctional parents who will not take responsibility for selecting a school. This is a complicated, delicate issue, but some careful provision for others to select a school for these children will be necessary.

In a voucher plan, state educational authorities will define minimum requirements for schools eligible to receive vouchers. Competition will force the poorest schools to improve or close. Even if a parent chooses the poorest voucher school, it will very likely be better than today's worst inner-city schools. At the same time, it will be necessary for educational authorities to operate an excellent informational program to tell all parents about their options.

Much of the discussion about bad choices by poor, uneducated parents is simply elitist paternalism. The overwhelming majority of poor, struggling, inner-city parents -- including single moms -- that I have been privileged to know care deeply about their children. I trust them to make decisions for their children that are at least as good as those being made today by large administrative bureaucracies and teachers' unions in our inner-city school systems.

Vouchers will allow fanatics to operate schools. Won't the Ku Klux Klan start running schools? Eligibility standards for all schools can exclude schools that teach racism and hatred without preventing wide methodological and religious diversity. Only schools accepting anyone regardless of race or religion should be eligible for vouchers. Again, the wide experience of voucher-type arrangements in many other democracies offers no reason to fear that fanatics will be able to operate schools at taxpayers' expense.

Vouchers are not constitutional. Vouchers will mean that tax dollars finance sectarian religious beliefs in violation of the First Amendment. For decades, the Supreme Court has rejected government funding for religious elementary and secondary schools on the ground that "no tax in any amount, large or small, can be levied to support any religious activities or institutions" (Everson, 1947).

Certainly tax dollars dare not fund narrowly religious activities such as worship and evangelism. But the First Amendment does not, I believe, preclude government funds going to faith-based programs that offer public goods (e.g., health care, job training, education) that the society wants the government to fund. In America today, there is a vast range of religious, secular and government organizations providing a wide variety of social services. If government funds only secular agencies, it promotes a secular faith.

The fairest solution is for government to fund all successful providers of desired public goods such as education and health care whether or not a particular provider is religious or not. In fact, we already do that in a number of areas -- Pell grants for poor college students, child care to the parent, not a religious institution, and the parent freely chooses a school that is secular, Buddhist, Baptist and so on. Government is fair if it offers equal benefits to those of every and no religious belief. There is strong reason to believe that the Supreme Court will in fact approve a wisely devised voucher plan that includes but in no way favors religious schools.

The arguments favoring a test of educational vouchers far outweigh the criticisms. Present evidence suggests that a voucher plan would probably be better for poor and minority children, increase integration, strengthen the family, better respect societal pluralism, renew moral values and cost less. That is why a number of prominent progressive church leaders recently signed "A Progressive Call for Public Scholarships." Signers include the heads of several denominations, including the Progressive National Baptist Convention, the Disciples of Christ and the Reformed Church in America.

"Devastating problems demand daring experiments," the declaration insisted. "Inner-city public schools are a disaster." Together these leaders -- long identified with the struggle for racial and economic justice -- demand a test of vouchers with one basic criterion in mind: "Do public scholarships help or hurt our poorest children and the children of ethnic minorities? If significant new tests demonstrate this approach harms these children, we will lead the battle against educational vouchers. But if the tests do indicate that such scholarships help, no ideological straitjacket will prevent us from demanding their widespread adoption."

It is tragic that teachers' unions fight every and all voucher experiments. As Harvard's Paul Peterson says, if they are right that vouchers would be harmful, then "a few experiments will put the choice idea firmly to rest." Are they afraid a fair test might prove that vouchers work? As columnist Raspberry says, "It's time for some serious experimentation." Alongside the best public school reform proposals outlined above, as a nation we should invest equal resources in testing a voucher plan.

Somehow, as quickly as possible, we must discover the most effective way to end the scandalous failure of our inner-city schools. Public school advocates offer one possible solution; voucher proponents urge another. We simply do not know enough to try only the one or the other. We should be open enough to test both. Providing a good education for our children, especially those with least opportunity, is, as the Progressive Call insisted, "not a Republican or a Democratic issue, not a conservative or liberal cause, not a pro-business or pro-union agenda. It is rather a matter of justice and equal opportunity for our children."