How a voucher scheme brought hope to Harlem

Tom Paine, in The Rights of Man (1792) is usually acknowledged as the first advocate of vouchers, but the idea was first floated in modern times by Milton Friedman in 1955. His idea was modelled on the US government's veteran's programme, which allowed soldiers who had fought in the Second World War to receive a fixed sum to spend at any educational institution of their choice. Why not, Friedman asked, apply the same idea to schools? He believed it would allow new schools to be founded to serve the children of black and low-income parents.

The idea was pursued by the Institute of Economic Affairs during the Sixties and Seventies, but received little serious attention until 1981 when Sir Keith Joseph, then Secretary of State for Education, declared that he was "intellectually attracted" to vouchers as a means of extending parental choice and improving standards. At the Tory party conference in October 1982 he confirmed his interest, adding that he was concerned "not only with the rich and clever", but wanted to extend choice to everyone. The following year, however, he told the conference: "The voucher, at least in the foreseeable future, is dead."

His interest had been stimulated by Friends of the Education Voucher Experiment in Representative Regions. Founded in Kent in 1974 under the leadership of Marjorie Seldon, it had inspired the county council to conduct a feasibility study which had discovered strong support from parents in the Ashford area. Hopes were high for a time, but when the Secretary of State withdrew support in 1983, the campaign collapsed.

Enthusiasm has not only been confirmed to free marketeers. During the mid-Eighties, vouchers attracted support from self-styled "market socialists" who liked the idea of parental choice so long as parents from disadvantaged backgrounds were paid higher amounts and wealthier parents were prevented from "topping up" the basic value.

Despite the popularity of the idea, there have been few experiments. In the US there have been many schemes designed to improve parental choice, but they have typically fallen short of the full voucher ideal. One of the better schemes was introduced in Minnesota and allows students to enrol at schools outside their own area, with the money following their choice.

During the Reagan years the federal government tried to encourage voucher schemes but was frustrated by the provision in the US Constitution that prevents the transfer of taxpayers' money to religious organisations. Church schools dominate private schooling in the US.

The most promising experiment has been conducted in East Harlem. In 1973, its results for reading and maths were the worst of all New York's 32 school districts. Poverty was widespread: 80 per cent of pupils received free lunches and more than half the families were headed by lone females. The racial mix was 60 per cent Hispanic and 35 per cent black. In 1974, teachers were encouraged to found new schools on the understanding that they could control their own admissions and curriculum. Parents had complete choice of school and money followed their choice. The opportunity was seized by teachers dedicated to serving the inner-city poor.

Schools proliferated, specialising in a wide variety of subjects including the Academy of Environmental Science, East Harlem School for Health and Biomedical Studies and the Isaac Newton School for Math and Science.

Student achievement improved dramatically. In 1973 only 16 per cent of pupils could read at the appropriate level for their age. By 1987, the figure was 63 per cent. And instead of being the worst school district in New York, East Harlem was in the middle of the range, confirming that voucher schemes can truly serve the interests of all, rich and poor alike.

David Green