- The Washington Times - Sunday, March 31, 2002

Private-school voucher programs are likely to make low-income neighborhoods more racially integrated and boost property values, says an economics professor who is studying the effects of education policy changes on communities and school quality.
In the current education system, families are assigned to a public school according to their address, Thomas J. Nechyba told a forum at the American Enterprise Institute (AEI) on Friday.
Taxpayer-funded voucher programs, which allow families to choose a school, encourage mobility because they "sever the link" between residency and schools, said Mr. Nechyba, who is an associate professor of economics and public policy studies at Duke University in Durham, N.C.
There is "unambiguous and robust" evidence that shows private-school vouchers would dramatically change a low-income community, said Mr. Nechyba, who developed computer models to test his hypotheses.
For instance, if vouchers were available only in a certain school district, it would attract new families, bringing in racial diversity, he said. And since poor and middle-income families are the most likely to use vouchers, it is also likely that higher-income families would move closer to the voucher school district, buying homes and raising property values.
The computer models are less clear about the impact vouchers would have on public school quality, Mr. Nechyba said, because no one can predict how public schools would respond to vouchers.
Still, under the most pessimistic scenarios, negative impacts on public-school quality were "surprisingly" small and under optimistic scenarios, public schools actually improved, Mr. Nechyba said.
Mr. Nechyba's research should help refocus the school-choice debate because it shows the broad effects educational policies can have on a community, said Derek Neal, an assistant professor at the University of Chicago who is studying the performance of Catholic schools in large cities.
Realistically, though, the fate of large-scale voucher programs rests with the Supreme Court, said Frederick M. Hess, an assistant professor of education and government at the University of Virginia who joined Mr. Neal in commenting on Mr. Nechyba's research at the AEI event.
The Supreme Court is considering Zelman v. Simmons-Harris. The case asks whether Cleveland's publicly funded scholarship program, which allows students to attend schools of their choice including private and religious schools is constitutional.
"If the answer's no, I think it's unlikely we'll see a large-scale [voucher] experiment," Mr. Hess said.
If the answer is yes, then it is likely that at least one citywide voucher program will emerge within five years in one of a dozen states that allow taxpayer money to go to religious schools, said Mr. Hess, who writes frequently about the politics of school reform.


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