Tracking Hurts Children

By Ellen Spears

Vol. 21, No. 1, 1999 p. 19

Several Southern state legislatures are considering controversial school voucher proposals, which public education advocates call a thinly veiled ploy to undermine public school funding and secure public funding for religious schools. Bills introduced in Florida, Texas, and Georgia would deduct money from state school budgets to fund private school tuition and are being targeted at minorities and students at low performing schools, according to opponents of the initiatives.

"The South is the next big area for vouchers," said Jamie Daly of People for the American Way, "both Florida and Texas are going to be the next big battles."

Daly, a critic of voucher programs, is most concerned about Florida's proposal. On March 25, in a mostly partisan 71-49 vote, the Florida House approved a limited voucher program. It will now move to the Republican-controlled Senate where it is expected to face stronger opposition. Supported by Governor Jeb Bush and Lt. Governor Frank Brogan, former Florida commissioner of education, the bill would provide "opportunity scholarships."

The legislation has generated an opposition group, the Florida Coalition for Public Education, which includes educators, teacher unions, principals' organizations, and parent groups, like the PTA. "Pro-voucher legislators say they are trying to help poor kids," said Florida state PTA President-elect Patty Hightower, "but really they are trying to buy themselves out of having to provide an adequate educational system for all students."

Floridians for School Choice advertises the A+ program on its web site as "publicly funded scholarships to some of the most deserving students in the state."

Texas is anticipating a prolonged fight over similar measures. Governor Bush's brother in Texas, Governor George Bush, is also supporting a voucher program, though the bill most likely to receive attention has not yet been filed. Ted Bivins (R-Amarillo) is planning to introduce a pilot project, again targeted at schools with consistently low average student scores on standardized tests.

Carolyn Boyle of the Texas Coalition for Public Schools, which includes thirty groups that oppose private school vouchers, said "even a pilot project is a bad idea. There is not enough money to pay for the public schools now," Boyle said. "Texas is rural, and there are no private schools," Boyle continued.

Boyle sees the tide shifting against vouchers, even among traditional supporters. "Legislators are realizing that this would take public money away for private schools," said Boyle, "Even a lot of Republicans are changing their minds."

While efforts to pass voucher programs failed in Virginia and Mississippi, two Georgia proposals have provoked debate. One of the bills, filed by state Senator Clay Land (R-Columbus), called the Early HOPE Scholarship Act of 1999, was named for the immensely popular college scholarship program established under former Georgia Governor Zell Miller.

The proposal, which failed in committee, would have allowed up to 90 percent of the state's per pupil allotment to be given to an individual low-income elementary or middle school student at schools which test below national standards for three years. Under the proposal, tuition could be used at a private school or at an "adequate public school" nearby.

Georgia's first-term Democratic Governor Barnes has committed to establishing a task force on education to develop a comprehensive approach for school improvement in the state.

"Vouchers would only undermine the financial strength of our schools and our already weakened rural public schools," said Brian Kintisch, director of the Macon-based Center for Law and Education.

"The majority of public school students in Georgia could never take advantage of vouchers," Kintisch said, "because they live in rural areas without access to private schools. There could be no benefit for a public school student in a rural area, whether white or black, rich or poor."

Ellen Spears is managing editor of Southern Changes.