THREE MAIN REASONS WHY SCHOOL VOUCHERS DON’T WORK

Burlington County Times, July 15, 2002

It’s difficult, when writing a column that appears only twice a month, to be timely with items in the news. But one controversial issue that will continue to engage the public mind and discourse is that of school vouchers.

The U. S. Supreme Court, in a narrow 5-4 decision, declared that a Cleveland, Ohio, City School District plan to give a $2,500.00 voucher to parents who want to send their children to private school, even if the school is affiliated with a specific religious group, is Constitutional.

I disagree with this decision for several reasons. What will surprise many people who know me is that my primary objection is not to the part of the plan that subsidizes religious schools. It’s true that I don’t want my tax dollars to go to schools that teach that God only loves Christians; nor do I want them to go to Jewish schools that would consider my family to be heretics because we’re not observant enough. But I also don’t want my money to go to people who live in million dollar homes and send their children to elite prep schools. If public money is being used for the vouchers, then the program will have to be available to all, regardless of need.

My main objections are in three areas: funding, accountability, and choice.

Funding: It’s a fallacy that every child in a private school saves the public schools money. There are certain set expenses that won’t change – salaries, overhead for the buildings, liability insurance.

In addition, our tax money already is used for private, secular education. It’s disguised as direct aid to the parents and children rather than to the schools (as is the voucher plan, which gives the money to the parents, not the schools) and is explained as having to do with the welfare of the individual. But the text books in secular subjects that are lent by public school districts to private schools and the payments given to parents for transportation and the special services vans that can be seen daily in private school parking lots all save these secular religious schools money. In New Jersey, for example, if a public school district cannot provide a bus for children to and from their private school, then the State sends the parents two checks a year, totaling almost $1,500.00. Private school parents fill out request forms for the public school districts to lend them text books in history and math. Children miss classes in order to go to the mobile vans for speech therapy.

Where is the extra money going to come from to fund the vouchers? Either our taxes will rise, or the public school budgets will be reduced even further.

I don’t mind paying more taxes for the public schools. I do mind paying more taxes to subsidize private school tuition.

Accountability: Public schools are required to meet specific standards, having to do with curriculum, teacher certification, facilities, standardized test scores. Private schools are not. Who will oversee whether these schools are fulfilling their obligations to provide a safe environment with a quality teaching staff and plan?

I administer a program for state-certified teachers who want to earn master’s degrees. One day at work, a student of mine, who is a principal in a private religious school, called to ask me whether we offered a bachelor’s degree program. “I would love for my staff to get their degrees in your program,” she said. It turns out that most of her teachers are not even college graduates.

Choice: I’m not talking here about school choice, as in parents’ choosing the school for their children. I’m talking about school choice, as in whether schools can choose their students. Private schools can. Public ones cannot.

Public schools are for everyone. Any child, regardless of intellectual ability, physical limitations, emotional maturity, psychological problems, neurological impairments, is entitled to be schooled at public expense in the least restrictive environment.

Private schools can pick and choose whom they want as their student body. Too smart? Sorry, we cannot provide a gifted program. Try the public schools. Need tutoring? Sorry, it’s not in our budget. You may be happier in the public schools. Need books in braille? Need sign language interpreters? Need an aide to help redirect focus or attention? We can’t help you; but the public schools can.

I know from first-hand experience that private schools cannot provide all the services a public school can. Sometimes, they lack the resources – human as well as financial – and sometimes they are just not willing to try. The public schools don’t have that option.

I don’t want to see public schools become as exclusionary as private ones. But until the private schools become as inclusionary as the public ones, we should not be subsidizing them.

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