The problem with using vouchers as a means to expand access to quality schools for poor children is that it is based on the premise that parents are the one's who do the choosing. The truth of the matter is that schools are the ones who choose and not parents.
When a low-income parent shows up at a private school, especially an elite school with few poor children of color, there is no guarantee that their child will be chosen for admission - even if the parent has a voucher. This is particularly true if the child has learning disabilities, behavior problems or doesn't speak English very well. As we've seen with many charter schools, such children are often under-served because they are harder to serve and possession of a voucher won't change that. Many private schools maintain quality through selective admissions and vouchers won't change that either.
Moreover, choice assumes that a parent has access to information on the choices available and transportation. Neither of these can be assumed. Many parents choose a school based on how close it is to their home or work, rather than the school's reputation. Many are unwilling to send their children to schools in neighborhoods far from their homes, particularly if transportation is not provided.
The idea that vouchers would solve the lack of access to quality schools in poor, inner city neighborhoods is based on the belief that the free market is a better regulator of goods and services than the government. While this idea sounds good in theory, it's not borne out by the facts.
In most inner city communities in the United States, the free market is not effective at providing healthy food at affordable prices, banking services or safe, affordable housing. That's because the poor in the inner city constitute a "captured market" and suppliers of goods and services are typically able to get away with low-quality products because community members have few available alternatives.
Systems of school choice only work when there are lots of good choices available and a means for parents to exercise their choices. This can only be done when government insures quality by holding schools accountable for the quality of education they provide. Of course, our policymakers have largely failed to do this because they've focused on accountability as measured by student test scores, rather than concentrating on insuring that all schools have the resources and support systems in place to meet the needs of the students they serve, and holding themselves accountable if they don't.
Pedro Noguera is an urban sociologist and a professor at New York University's Steinhardt School of Culture, Education, and Human Development. He is the author of "The Trouble With Black Boys...And Other Reflections on Race, Equity and the Future of Public Education."