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Parents Lead Way As States Debate School Vouchers

January 31, 2000Posted in News

New York Times

Published: January 31, 2000

One mother said it was the violence. Another said it was the drug dealing. A third said it was the growing number of children she noticed each day smoking, hugging and kissing in the schoolyard.

One by one, two dozen parents from low-income neighborhoods here in southwest Albuquerque explained how fear and anguish had led them to remove their children from public schools and enroll them in private schools costing as much as $2,000 a year.

Their stories unfolded as part of a plea to lawmakers to enact a school voucher program that would let them use public funds to help pay private school tuition. It is a plea that has caught the ear of Republicans here, particularly Gov. Gary E. Johnson, who is proposing what would be the most ambitious voucher program in the country.

But the parents’ heartfelt passion is being met with equal fervor by other politicians, as well as teachers and their union representatives, who fear that taking money out of public schools would hasten their erosion.

It is a debate playing out across the country with increasing intensity as more than 25 legislatures consider bills that would create some type of system in which public dollars would be used for private and parochial schools like the Abundant Life Christian School here, where many parents pay $2,000 a year for each child they enroll.

Even with violence, drugs, crowding and unqualified teachers undermining achievement in many public schools, few measures, if any, including New Mexico’s, are expected to pass this year. But forces on both sides — and experts who have studied the public and private financing of education — say support for school vouchers is growing so rapidly, especially in poor neighborhoods, that more cities and states will eventually implement programs through legislation or statewide ballot initiatives.

”A lot of people have been talking about this issue for quite a few years,” said Eric Hirsch, a senior policy specialist for the National Conference of State Legislatures, who tracks education issues. ”A lot of states aren’t quite there yet, but there are a lot of proposals out there.”

Paul Peterson, a professor of government at Harvard who has studied the existing programs, said the growing popularity of charter schools around the country was strong evidence that more voucher programs were inevitable. Charter schools are public schools that operate largely free of state and local regulations and unions. They are intended to provide a creative alternative to traditional public schools but must demonstrate progress or risk being closed.

”Every time something is introduced that provides more choice, it is never taken away,” Professor Peterson said. ”Parents really like it, so politicians can’t afford to take it back. Vouchers may creep along because the political opposition is so intense, but it’ll happen.”

Only five public voucher programs are operating now — in Milwaukee, Cleveland, Florida, Minnesota and Arizona — each serving a relatively small percentage of children.

Here in New Mexico, legislation proposed last year and again this month by Governor Johnson, a Republican in his second term, would exceed those programs significantly by offering each of the state’s 316,000 children in public schools a voucher worth $3,500 a year that could be used for tuition at any private or parochial school in the state.

”You would like to have a choice,” said Geri Paiz, a disgruntled mother who pulled the last three of her six children out of public schools this year and is now paying $1,000 each for them to attend Catholic schools. ”What they don’t realize is that many parents would jump at the chance to have a choice.”

For now, the slow pace of acceptance is largely owing to efforts of politically active and well-organized opponents, including unions like the National Education Association and the American Federation of Teachers, which have strong ties to the Democratic Party.

The opponents contend that using public dollars to help some students get into private schools hurts those left behind by taking money away from teacher salaries, school construction and teaching materials. They also argue that private and parochial schools, which have the right to accept or reject applicants, would take only higher-performing children, leaving public-school classrooms filled with a higher percentage of students with learning, language and behavioral problems.

Independent studies of the Milwaukee and Cleveland programs have found that students who use vouchers to attend private schools perform at a slightly higher rate than public-school students. A greater advantage, as the studies show, may be satisfaction among parents — for having the choice and for feeling secure that their children are learning in a safer environment.

But researchers like Kim Metcalf, a professor of education at Indiana University, say the programs are too young and too small to draw any definite conclusions, and some results may reflect factors that have little to do with the classroom.

”If you look at the performance of kids in private versus public schools, the private schools look substantially better,” Mr. Metcalf said. ”But there’s a probability that private-school parents are better-educated, make more money and provide more intellectual stimulus at home.”

Mr. Peterson said, ”Nobody finds them bad for kids, and there is a tremendous enthusiasm from parents.”

Despite their growing appeal among parents, private-school vouchers have achieved virtually no support at the national level since the Bush administration and, until recently, not much more in state legislatures, which have been debating the issue for more than 20 years. Ballot initiatives have fared no better, failing decisively in Michigan (1978), Oregon (1990), Colorado (1992) and California (1993).

To create a choice for parents, cities and states have more often allowed them to enroll children in any public school, the case in New Mexico, and have approved more charter schools, which now number 1,700 around the country, up from several hundred a few years ago.

The oldest of the voucher programs paid for with public money is Milwaukee’s, in effect for 10 years, offering families that fall below certain income levels vouchers worth up to $4,894 a year. Cleveland’s five-year-old program uses other income levels to offer vouchers worth up to $2,250. In Florida, which last year became the first state to approve a statewide measure, each public school is graded annually for overall academic achievement, and any child attending a school that has been judged to be ”failing” two years in a row becomes eligible for $3,500 from the state.

Programs in Minnesota and Arizona take a different approach, offering tax benefits for dollars invested in education. In Minnesota, families making less than $37,500 with children in public or private schools are eligible for $1,000 per child, to a maximum of two, as reimbursement from the state for certain educational expenses, including textbooks, tutors and computer equipment. All families are eligible for tax deductions for tuition costs.

In Arizona, residents who donate to ”student tuition organizations,” which distribute money to needy families, can deduct the full amount of the donation from their taxes.

Despite formidable political opposition, proponents of vouchers in other states are pushing ahead.

Twice in the last three years, Gov. George W. Bush of Texas supported a proposed pilot program for students at low-performing schools. The legislation failed both times, but its sponsor, Senator Teel Bivans, an Amarillo Republican, intends to introduce it again when the legislature returns next year. Mr. Bush continues to support vouchers as a Republican presidential candidate.

In Pennsylvania, another Republican governor, Tom Ridge, has failed four times since 1995 in efforts to push through legislation that would provide state money to children for private or parochial schools. A spokesman said the governor would keep trying through the end of his second term, in 2002.

Seven years after California’s first ballot initiative on vouchers failed, supporters are trying again, collecting signatures to get a measure before voters in November. An initiative is also being developed in Michigan.

In Kansas, lawmakers are considering a pilot voucher proposal that would aid 300 children even though Gov. Bill Graves, a Republican, has clearly indicated he is ”less than enthusiastic” about voucher programs of any kind, according to his spokesman.

Here in New Mexico, Governor Johnson has made vouchers a hallmark issue, convinced that ever-increasing spending on state public schools — $1.6 billion was proposed this year, almost half the budget — has not produced significant improvements in student performance.

Last year, he refused to sign a budget that did not include a voucher program and called in legislators for a special session to iron out their differences. Facing Democratic majorities in both chambers, Mr. Johnson finally signed a package that did not include vouchers, but he succeeded in creating new visibility for what he says is inevitable.

This year, Republicans in the House and Senate introduced his proposal again, and in the governor’s State of the State address this month, the voucher issue was the first he mentioned.

”Every state screams out about every single problem in education and asks what they should be doing,” Mr. Johnson said in an interview. ”By all measures, we’re doing just a little bit worse year by year by year. But vouchers is the right vehicle, and ultimately you are going to see school reform based on choice happen.”

Mr. Johnson conceded that he did not expect the measure to survive the legislature again this year. But with all 112 state lawmakers facing re-election in November, ”I want to make this the campaign issue this year,” he said.

That prospect delights parents like Ms. Paiz and Elena Maldonado, who enrolled her daughter, Laura, 12, in the Abundant Life school two years ago because of gang activity and drugs at her public elementary school. Ms. Maldonado said she was a Democrat who planned to vote for Vice President Al Gore, a voucher opponent, in the presidential election. But she vowed to vote against her state legislators, who are Democrats, if they did not support a voucher program.

State Senator Linda M. Lopez, a Democrat from southwest Albuquerque, voted against the program last year but said she would keep an open mind, especially if she heard from more people like Ms. Maldonado.

But whether New Mexico or any other state approves a voucher system might ultimately depend less on local politics than on the United States Supreme Court. Seven months after the Ohio State Supreme Court ruled last year that the Cleveland program was constitutional, a Federal district judge ruled it unconstitutional. The critical issue is whether vouchers financed by taxpayers violate the separation of church and state when they are used for religious schools.

An appeals court is reviewing the case, but experts say any ruling would most likely be taken to the Supreme Court, which may be ready to consider the voucher issue after refusing to hear appeals of rulings that the programs in Milwaukee and Arizona were constitutional.

”If the Supreme Court rules that the Ohio program is constitutional, that could change everything,” Mr. Metcalf said. ”It would certainly open the door for virtually all of the 20 to 25 states considering legislation to push this through more quickly.”

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