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Republican school voucher schemes need independent research

By PHILIP GAILEY

© St. Petersburg Times,
published June 10, 2001


The school voucher debate continues to go around in circles, mostly along partisan and ideological lines, but it may be rapidly approaching a moral crossroad that will test the sincerity of both sides.

Last week, President Bush signed a $1.35-trillion tax-cut bill that, among other things, grants a tax break for savings that for the first time can be used to send children to private elementary and secondary schools. It's an expansion of a federal college savings program that allows as much as $2,000 a year in education savings accounts whose earnings are tax free. The same Congress that approved this tax break rejected an experimental voucher program for poor children in the education reform bill. This federal tax break does little to help families who most need financial aid to rescue their children from failing inner-city schools, but that doesn't seem to disturb the consciences of Democratic lawmakers who refuse to cross the teacher unions that contribute so generously to their campaigns.

I believe it is immoral for government to subsidize families who can afford private-school tuition while turning its back on the children of the poor, especially for reasons that have more to do with politics than with education. What do those who have long opposed voucher experiments tell low-income parents whose children are hopelessly trapped in failing schools? That life is unfair? That they must sacrifice their children's future for the greater goal of preserving our system of public education? That they should be patient and wait for a massive commitment of resources to our public schools that everyone knows is not going to happen?

Let me be clear: I don't believe vouchers will either destroy or save our public schools. I don't trust Republicans one bit when they say their only motive is to rescue poor children from wretched inner-city schools. I strongly oppose a universal voucher system -- their real goal -- that would hand out public money to anyone who chooses to attend a private school, secular or religious. And I have serious reservations about the constitutionality of public vouchers going to religious schools.

In Florida this year, the Legislature expanded state vouchers for disabled students who want to transfer to private schools, regardless of family income. A proposal to provide vouchers to students in overcrowded schools failed, but lawmakers did pass legislation to give businesses a dollar-for-dollar tax break for money they contribute to private-school scholarship funds for low-income students. But guess what? The tax break would subsidize tuition even for students who want to leave public schools judged to be doing well. By Gov. Jeb Bush's own measure -- his A+

Plan -- there are no failing schools in Florida this year, but that hasn't stopped Republicans from expanding vouchers through the back door.

The fact is, no one knows whether vouchers will make a difference in the education of poor children or whether they will be destructive of our public school system. The reason is that we've never been willing to have an honest national experiment with vouchers. The few voucher studies we've seen so far have produced conflicting conclusions.

Last year, a report by the Center on Education Policy, a national independent advocate for public education, concluded: "The jury is still out on whether vouchers are an effective policy for improving education and what effects they have on student achievement." The report went on to say that "the fundamental challenge facing policymakers and education officials is to address the gaps in our understanding of current voucher programs and begin to answer unresolved questions."

Maybe it's time for the same Congress that doles out education tax breaks for the well-off to authorize a limited pilot program that would focus on helping poor children stuck in some of our worst-performing schools. Democrats so far have refused to even consider a voucher experiment in the District of Columbia, where mostly black children from poor families are trapped in a public school system that is a disaster area despite having one of the nation's highest per-pupil expenditure rates.

Republican Sen. Judd Gregg of New Hampshire has proposed a pilot program in as many as 10 cities in three states. According to a Washington Post editorial: "It would make vouchers available to low-income children in schools that have been failing for three years. It allows participating districts to set the vouchers' value, holding out the chance that some students might get enough money to actually meet the cost of private tuition. It provides for an outside evaluation of students' performance and the effect on the public schools involved."

This experiment, the Post added, "might help some individual students trapped in failing public schools while also providing useful data to inform the long-running debate about vouchers' potential effects."

It's no longer enough to just say that we need to improve our public schools -- we do -- or that because we can't rescue all the children from failing schools, we shouldn't try to rescue any. The time has come for those of us who oppose Republican voucher schemes to test our arguments against honest, independent research. Let's call the other side's hand and see who has the most convincing case.

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