September 5, 2003

Good News on Vouchers

The Washington D.C. school vouchers program came one step closer to becoming a reality today when the amendment containing the measure passed in the House. It had been approved in the Senate Appropriations Committee on Thursday. The D.C. schools are among the nation's worst, and this plan had bipartisan backing (for a change), though it was still opposed by teachers unions and those Democratic congressmen who do their bidding.

The bill contains a significant amount (approx. 33%) of funding that will go to the public schools, (on top of the $10,550 per student, per year that they are already spending), so in effect, it gives them more money with which to educate fewer students. Sadly, this was the tradeoff, or bribe if you will, that was necesary to get the bill the backing that it needed to pass.

Let me make sure I get this right. All funding for the $7500 scholarships to allow students to attend private schools comes from the voucher bill's funds. In other words, it's "new" revenues. For each student admitted to the program, the public school system has an extra $10,550 that they no longer need to spend educating that student. I realize that it's not a "dollar for dollar" net savings to the system as a result of having one less student, but in reality, they will have the same amount of money to educate significantly fewer kids.

The argument against voucher programs by opponents is that they would "drain" money from the public schools. But even if the funding for the vouchers wasn't coming from new voucher program revenues, the schools should have a net gain of $3000 per student, (if the full $7500 private school tuition came out of public funds.) So now, with the additional public school funds coming from the vouchers bill, the public system will have millions more to spend educating less students. It shows how desperate D.C. politicians and citizens were to get a "foothold" by starting up even an experimental voucher program. And it also demonstrates yet again the political clout of teacher unions, as they are able to acquire more taxpayer money to do less work.

The Center for Educational Reform, a pro-school choice group, has a document called Fast Facts on Washington D.C. School Reform (.pdf file), which includes a summary of "The Top Nine Lies About School Choice":

1. The “Undermining-America” Argument
“’Opportunity Scholarships’ sound terrific, until you understand its Orwellian meaning: Give up on public education in America; stop investing in it; siphon off as much of its funding as you can to enable a few ‘deserving poor’ to go to private (mostly religious) schools,
and to hell with all the kids left behind.” –
Sandra Feldman, President, AFT.

Students shouldn’t be forced to remain in failing schools just to provide financial support to the system. Public education is about children, not others with a vested interest in the monopoly system. Plus, as economists Martin and Kathleen Feldstein comment, “most proposals are for vouchers that are considerably less than actual per-pupil expenditures, so… students who use vouchers to attend private schools will free up financial resources that can be spread among the children who remain in the system.”

2. The “Creaming” Argument
“At best, vouchers offer increased opportunity for a relative handful of children who will be carefully selected by the private schools that have the luxury of deciding whom they want to admit.” – Steven R. Shapiro, Legal Director, American Civil Liberties Union.

John Witte found in his review of the Milwaukee voucher program that “the students in the Choice program were not the best, or even average students from the Milwaukee [public] system.” Worse according to other researchers, nearly 37 percent of Milwaukee’s public schools employ screening measures prohibited for schools in the choice program. Finally, wealthier parents often have already moved their children to neighborhoods with better public schools or to private schools. The fact of the matter is low-income parents are left behind by the current system, and all school choice programs are targeted at those parents.

3. The “Radical Schools” Scare
“Can you imagine a KKK group, Skinheads, witches or other cult groups setting up schools to teach their philosophy and using taxpayers’ dollars to do so?” – Former California Assembly Speaker Willie Brown.

Approximately 96 percent of private school children attend schools that are
accredited or evaluated by national, regional or state private school organizations maintaining standards accepted or recognized by federal, state, and local agencies, according to Dr. Charles O’Malley, who handled private education issues for three U.S. Secretaries of Education.

4. The “Church-State” Argument
“Taxpayers must never be forced to pay for religion.” – Rev. Barry W. Lynn, Executive Director, Americans United for Separation of Church and State.

In June 2002, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that parents exercising their individual free choice could use vouchers on private schools — whatever their affiliation.

5. The “Lack of Accountability” Argument
“Voucher programs lack accountability… Public schools must also comply with all federal, state, and local civil rights, health and safety requirements.”;- Statement by several organizations, including the ACLU, Anti-Defamation League, National PTA, and NEA.

Schools of choice are accountable directly to parents, who voluntarily choose to
enroll their children in them. When such schools aren’t doing their jobs, they lose students, and can go out of business. Not so for public schools.

6. The “Big Brother” Argument
“Private school vouchers would make parochial schools less parochial and private schools less private, subjecting them to public supervision and compromising their independence.” – Richard Riley, former Secretary of Education.

Sound choice plans include provisions to protect the independence of private
schools. The most compelling evidence comes from the Milwaukee experience. The longest running school choice program of its kind, the Milwaukee Parental Choice Program has not led to excessive or intrusive regulations on private schools. In fact, with every passing year, more private schools have opted to participate in the program (from seven in the first year to 102 now).

7. The “Choice is Expensive” Argument
“A voucher rarely covers the cost of tuition. The losers will be the minorities and the low income students.” – - Representative Robert Scott, D-Virginia.

As the U.S. Department of education reported in June 2003, the average private
school tuition is $4,689, while the average public school expenditure per pupil was $7,392, more than 50 percent higher than average private school tuition costs.

8. The “Choice is Limited” Argument
“A simple mathematical exercise will immediately point out that the numbers don’t work. A voucher system, regardless of the amount of money provided, can only accommodate a minimal number of public school students.” – Gerald Tirozzi, former Assistant Secretary of Education.

As demand for private and alternative public schools increases, so too will their
supply. As previously mentioned, the number of private schools in the Milwaukee
program rose from seven to 102. In another choice program, the number of charter schools have grown from one to nearly 3,000 since 1992.

9. The “Failed Experiment” Argument
“There is no compelling case to be made for vouchers based on the achievement data.” – Alex Molnar, Professor, University of Wisconsin, Milwaukee.

Even though choice is just in its infancy and has had to contend with court challenges, underfunding, and constant legislative threat, research shows it is working. In New York City, DC, Ohio, Wisconsin, and other places, researchers have shown that in choice programs the most at-risk students post gains in excess of those earned in the public school system.

Posted by dan at September 5, 2003 8:13 PM