When Public Means Private: School Vouchers

When Public Means Private: School Vouchers

By Gale Greenlee

Vol. 22, No. 1, 2000, pp. 12-13, 21

As the presidential race 2000 heats up, Democrats and Republicans take their places at opposite ends of the political totem pole to debate issues such as campaign finance reform, the Confederate flag, and police brutality. On the education front, no issue is more controversial than school vouchers. Voucher advocates, generally conservatives, plug school vouchers-which are often promoted as “school choice” or “opportunity scholarships”–as the cure-all for a beleaguered and much maligned public educational system. Detractors, generally progressive, teacher unions, minorities and many high profile organizations (such as the ACLU, the NAACP and the National Education Association), have publicly denounced such schemes as poorly disguised attempts by the right wing to subsidize religious schools, push a conservative political agenda and, in the process, dismantle public education as we know it.

Currently, only three programs–in Milwaukee, Cleveland and the state of Florida–use tax dollars to fund students’ education at private schools. Though the voucher movement is growing, it faces many obstacles and opponents.

On the national level, the voucher debate has gained widespread attention due to recent court battles. In 1998, Wisconsin’s State Supreme Court upheld Milwaukee’s voucher program. Last year, on December 13, the U.S. Supreme Court refused to hear an appeal from a Vermont case, in which parents wanted state money to subsidize their children’s education at parochial schools. One week later, a federal judge in Ohio declared Cleveland’s four-year-old voucher program unconstitutional, stating that it violates the separation of church and state; that case is likely to wind up before the U.S. Supreme Court. More recently, on March 14, Florida State Circuit Judge L. Ralph Smith Jr., declared Florida’s school voucher program unconstitutional. The state plans to appeal that decision.

“Voucher programs have become prevalent nationwide,” says Steve Benen, spokesperson for Americans United for Separation of Church and State (www.au.org), a Washington, D.C.-based religious liberty watchdog.

Benen notes that interest in vouchers is spreading throughout the South, as states such as Alabama and Georgia consider programs, and others like Virginia and Kentucky debate giving tax credits to parents who send their kids to private schools. Additionally, Louisiana, which has a strong pro-voucher lobby within the Catholic Church, has repeatedly attempted to pass voucher legislation, albeit unsuccessfully. Perhaps the most important move occurred in June 1999 when Florida Governor Jeb Bush signed into law the nation’s first statewide school voucher program. Following Judge Smith’s ruling, the program will not

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continue next year, but the debate certainly will.

Under Florida’s plan, all public schools would be graded “A” to “F,” and students attending failing schools would be given the option of enrolling in another school, including religious schools-at the expense of tax payers. The plan faced stiff opposition, from the NAACP and the Anti-Defamation League, as well as local and statewide PTAs.

In Escambia County, located in the panhandle approximately one hour from of Mobile, Ala., seven of the county’s thirty-eight elementary schools and two of its nine middle schools were given an “F” rating for the 1998-99 school year.

Barbara Frye, spokesperson for Florida’s Escambia County Schools, says the A+ plan was based on a fallacy. “The fallacy is that the children are not ‘trapped’ and we will also maintain that the schools aren’t failing,” she says.

She explains that schools are ranked based on the average score of fourth graders on the Florida Comprehensive Achievement Test (FCAT). She argues that using an average score, rather than measuring individual student progress, skews the results and obscures the fact that “You can have many students not learning, sitting in an ‘A’ school.” She also criticizes the plan for not giving vouchers to low-achieving students, but rather to students who simply live in a district with a “failing” school. Furthermore, since the voucher schools are private, they are not required to adhere the same standards and regulations as public schools and therefore aren’t accountable to taxpayers. “It doesn’t make sense,” Frye says.

Regardless of the judicial challenges to Florida’s plan, it seems likely that Governor Jeb Bush’s brother and presidential hopeful George W., would, if elected, promote vouchers on a national level. In fact, the February 29 edition of the New York Times quoted the Texas governor as calling “portable” federal education dollars.

The South is also a key force in the school choice debate, not only because many conservatives live in the Bible Belt, but also because two organizations that fund private vouchers have roots in the region: Children First/CEO America Foundation and the Children’s Scholarship Fund (CSF).

CEO America, based in Bentonville, Ark. was started in 1992 and now operates more than 70 programs across the country. Its website clearly states its mission is “to promote parental choice in education through private

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tuition grants and tax-funded options.”

“We use these programs to demonstrate how these public policies could look,” says CEO America President Fritz Steiger. He says the organization proudly considers itself a “parent advocacy organization” that helps parents “understand how school choice works and how it helps them.”

Since 1992, the organization has given more than $1 million in scholarship money to students in Atlanta and Little Rock, more than $300,000 to ones in Chattanooga, almost $560,000 to ones in Mississippi and more than $8 million to programs in San Antonio, Texas.

Targeting low-income children, CSF is a two-year-old $100 million foundation underwritten by Republican fundraiser and venture capitalist Ted Forstmann, and CEO America board member and Wal-Mart heir, John Walton. Incidentally, Walton is also founder of School Futures Research Foundation, which manages charter schools in California, and he is a director of a for-profit corporation that also manages charter and public schools. CSF, which offers opportunity scholarships to disadvantaged kids, initially identified 40 partner cities, 15 of which are in the South-including Atlanta, Birmingham, Alabama, Memphis, Tennessee, New Orleans, Louisiana, Savannah, Georgia, and Jackson, Mississippi. After its first year, CSF expanded its program nationwide to help needy low-income children.

People for the American Way (www.pfaw.org) argues that the two organizations work hand-in-hand; while CSF strives to create a grassroots demand for vouchers, CEO America lobbies for voucher legislation, and then entrepreneurs eagerly await the opportunity to “supply the new privatized education system.” Since privately funded programs don’t use public money, it’s difficult to criticize CSF’s efforts, which are often publicized as mere philanthropy.

If anything, the voucher movement has amassed a curious mix of conservatives and people of color advocating for better educational opportunities. In fact CSF’s national board of advisors includes Dorothy I. Height, chair and president emeritus of the National Council of Negro Women, as well as Martin Luther King III and former Atlanta mayor Andrew Young.

Still, vouchers are not without critics. Governors of some Southern states, like Mississippi and North Carolina, remain staunch voucher opponents. In February, while giving his 7th Annual State of American Education address in Durham, N.C., U.S. Secretary of Education Richard W. Riley called for a renewed fight against voucher programs, saying they “divert us from the real challenge of lifting up all of our children.” Presidential hopeful Vice President Al Gore has also spoken out against vouchers, calling them a “big and historic mistake” that drains much needed funds from public schools.

A prime example of the loss of funds is Edgewood, Texas, part of the San Antonio school district. Backed by CEO America, the Horizon voucher project diverted more than $4.5 million from public schools as roughly 800 students accepted vouchers, worth up to $4,000; the district lost $5,800 in public funds for each student who left. According to Steiger, the project is a success in that it gives public schools competition and an impetus to reform.

As Benen notes, “Their [CEO’s] program is perfectly legal because it’s doesn’t use government funds. Still, I find it troubling that these ‘philanthropists’ have enormous funds to put into education but are using it in ways that I feel are counterproductive.”

Donna Fowler, spokesperson for the American Federation of Teachers (AFT) agrees. “It’s hard to be opposed to them [CEO America] because it’s private money,” she says. “But we have to look at what the effects are over time, and we’re seeing that the effects are minimal at best, and harmful in some cases.”

The jury is still out concerning whether voucher programs can actually raise student achievement. According to AFT, an evaluation of the Milwaukee program by University of Wisconsin-Madison professor John Witte found no difference in achievement levels for voucher students versus public school students. Still, that same data was later re-analyzed by pro-voucher advocates, and not suprisingly, showed that voucher students outperformed public school students in math and reading.

Whatever the case, voucher advocates and public school supporters continue to go toe to toe. For many Southern states with rural communities that lack private schools, public school is the only viable option. But for those with increasing numbers of charter schools, as well as private schools, publicly funded school voucher programs remain will continue fuel debate in the year 2000.

Gale Greenlee is a writer and editor at the Carolina Peacemaker in Greensboro, North Carolina. She served as a training and technical assistance coordinator for the Corporation for National Service’s LEARNS program at the Southern Regional Council until October 1999.