School Vouchers – An Overview

“Ask not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country.” — John Fitzgerald Kennedy. Throughout the thousands of political speeches given during our country’s history, there might not be a better anthem for political participation on an individual level. After letting JFK’s famous phrase sink in it is obvious that he wanted the American people to take charge of their political and social futures. Kennedy realized the importance of pro-activity on a personal or community basis, and the results that would come to the citizens of this country who partook in their own evolvement.

This ability that all Americans possess is not always utilized. Many people would rather sit back and complain about the condition of their environment, their communities, and their lives. Citizens of this country constantly denigrate our elected officials, but do they get out and vote on Election Day? Are they active in their communities? What are they doing to help themselves and what changes could these potential efforts produce? The answers to these questions seem to lie along the same lines for most Americansnothing. Not even 50% of Americans vote in the presidential election. This signifies a severe lack of patriotism and civic duty on the part of the American people.

Most people argue that they cannot make a significant difference by simply voting and becoming active in their respective communities. They believe that nothing important or consequential happens at the local and state levels of government. But what these people do not understand is that the majority of the decisions that will most closely affect their lives are made at these intermediary levels. Does the President of the United States have the fortitude or the even the time to be concerned with a community such as Adrian, Michigan? Obviously, the answer is no. Its local politicians and state representatives handle this community and its accompanying issues.

The purpose of this paper is to examine and analyze the school voucher program that was recently defeated in the election of 2000. Our slain king’s historic message should be taken to heart, because we are the only the ones that can help ourselves.

School Vouchers
This issue has caused more controversy than in recent memory. First of all, what are school vouchers? Vouchers are government subsidized distributions of money–in this case $3,000–to eligible families, which can be used to attend either private of public schools. The amount was determined by calculating the average amount of money that is allocated to each child in the state of Michigan. They are a way of helping low income families give their children a better education by allotting them money in the form of this coupon. In doing this, the state has to provide vouchers for every child attending school not just children of low-income families. If passed by the voters, will funnel money away from public schools and be distributed to various individuals, which will be selected based on economic status as well as a number of other factors.

Secondly, what issues do school vouchers bring to the political forefront? The distribution of public funds, meaning tax dollars, to only some individuals creates an argument. What are the criteria for receiving these funds? Who makes the decisions concerning disbursement and selection of recipients? Are the funds accounted for after they are distributed, or can the moneys be used for other purposes? As one can see by these questions, corruption can easily rear its ugly head during the selection and distribution. Also, being that these moneys can be used for enrollment in private schools, this bridges the gap between church and state. Public funding is not supposed to be given to privately funded establishments due to the long-standing separation of church and state in this country. Some argue that school vouchers are unconstitutional. Finally, by subjecting private schools to public funding, they are obligated to abide by the rules set by the Michigan Department of Education. Essentially, current private schools may become nothing more than high-priced public schools. (NEA, 2000)
The Arguments:
Some say that school vouchers will equalize educational opportunities for students, while others say vouchers will widen the gap of inequality. School vouchers are supposed to give parents a choice as to where their children can go to school, but their choice is not necessarily the only factor in determining the school their children end up in.

This is not entirely true. Although a parent can chose a public or private school, private schools are not obligated to take the child. Most private schools require an interview and check academic achievement. If the child does not meet the requirements, then he/she will not be admitted. On the other hand, all public schools have to accept everyone that comes through the door. As long as the private schools have this admission policy, it is unlikely that this will equalize educational opportunities. The equality issue seems to be lop-sided with regard to the admission of students because private schools do not have to admit everyone who comes to them, whereas public schools do.

With the $3,000 voucher, a parent may choose a private school and their child may be accepted, but there is still another factor involved in this equation. Private schools charge tuition and that tuition may be greater than the amount of the voucher. This may not be a problem for the middle to upper class family, but a low-income family would not be able to afford the extra money to send their child to a private school. Again, this seems as though the schools would still be unequal in its giving parents a choice because only those who can afford the private school will be attending them and those who cannot will be forced to go to a public school.

Although, for those low-income families the opportunity of choice may be giving some children privileges of a better quality of education that they may not have otherwise been able to take advantage. Parents who have a choice will try to choose the best school for their children. A competition between schools may occur, where teachers will have to improve in their teaching to draw in or keep students in their school. It will become important for schools to have parents choose them, so the quality of the education may increase.

The Controversy:
Vouchers may be used for schools that are public or private, religious or non-religious. Of the private schools, 85% are religiously affiliated. This brings up the issue of how constitutional vouchers are. There has been a separation of church and state for decades, yet with these vouchers, the state is allowing funding to go to religiously affiliated schools. Should the state allow funding to go toward something it has been trying to separate itself from or should the state just turn the other cheek and focus on the advantages it will be giving the students?
The NEA’s stance:
The NEA has clearly been the chief opponent of the school voucher program from the dawn of its inception. In the following arguments, the NEA attempts to prove that vouchers are without merit and that the proposal should be voted down in November.

There is no evidence that vouchers improve student learning. Every serious study of voucher plans concludes that vouchers don’t improve student achievement. The official study of Cleveland’s voucher program, by Dr. Kim Metcalf, found no achievement gains for voucher students compared to students in the public schools. The official evaluator of the Milwaukee voucher plan, Professor John Witte, found no improvements in student achievement after four years of the program’s implementation. Also in Milwaukee, Professor Alex Molnar’s comparison of student achievement found that public school students attending schools with smaller class sizes marked greater achievement gains than students in the voucher schools.

Vouchers undermine reform efforts by shifting scarce resources away from public schools. In order to pay for Cleveland’s voucher program, Ohio transferred $5.25 million from the public schools’ share of the state’s Disadvantaged Pupil Impact Aid program. The voucher program in Milwaukee is shifting $25 million away from public schools, which could have been used to expand the program to reduce class size.

Vouchers are fiscally irresponsible. Vouchers provide limited help for a few students while the funds could be better spent to help most of the students in the public schools. The same $7 million that proponents wish to use for up to 2,000 students in the District of Columbia to attend private school could be more responsibly spent by using the proven Success For All reading program in every public elementary school in the city plus 70 after-school enrichment programs.

The American people consistently reject vouchers at the polls. Every time a voucher proposal has been put to the voters, it’s been voted down by a wide margin. The last four times vouchers were on the ballotin Washington State (1996), California (1993), Colorado (1992), and Oregon (1990)they were rejected by margins of greater than 2-1.

Parental choice is a misnomer. Private school admissions offices make the choice of which students to admit or reject. Private schools retain the right to reject or accept any student, regardless of whether the student holds a voucher. By definition, private schools are selective, using a variety of criteria to weed out applicants. Further, most private and religious school costs would not be covered by the value of the voucher. Also, some voucher-eligible students would find that the voucher is an illusion of choice, because no openings are available to them. For example, a September 30, 1997, Washington Post story disclosed that private school openings in the Washington, D.C. area are few and that tuition costs are significantly higher than the voucher subsidy.

Public schools are improving without vouchers. According to studies by Cecelia Rouse of Princeton University and others, students in Milwaukee’s public school reduced class size program outperform private school voucher students in both math and reading. Memphis and Chicago public schools have improved student achievement without any voucher program.

Vouchers encourage “fly-by-night” schools and provide less accountability for public resources than public schools. Unlike public schools, private schools are not accountable to publicly elected school boards and taxpayers. Congressional voucher proposals call for less oversight and accountability and lack strong quality requirements for voucher schools. Two voucher-funded schools closed in Milwaukee as the result of state criminal fraud charges.

Vouchers will lead to double taxation. Because of the cost of paying for vouchers and public schools, the Milwaukee school board is considering raising taxes to pay for vouchers. In a 1996-press interview, Timothy Lamer of the conservative Free Market Project compared vouchers to “taxing citizens to advance religious teachings with which they disagree, a type of coercion that should be especially distasteful to religious citizens.” (NEA, 2000)
Kids First Stance:
Kids First is the group that was started in an effort to get Proposal 1 pushed through during the November election of 2000. Kids First makes three guarantees:
Funding for every child in public schools. It ensures that per pupil funding at any time in the future can never fall below the amount guaranteed by the state as of the 2000-2001 fiscal year. The guaranteed minimum level of funding will increase an average of 18% for public schools.

Teacher testing. Testing in academic subject areas for all public school teachers and nonpublic schoolteachers from schools that accept students with an Opportunity Scholarship. The initiative defers to the legislature to determine the details of the testing program.

Equal opportunity in education. Opportunity in expanding choice where it’s needed most or where local voters approve it. Parents that live in one of the worst-performing school districts – districts that fail to graduate at least two out of three of their students – will receive an Opportunity Scholarship worth one-half the per pupil expenditure in public schools. The current state per pupil expenditure is roughly $6,300, so the Opportunity Scholarship would be worth $3,150. The Opportunity Scholarship would empower parents to choose whichever nonpublic school they believe is best for their child. About 30 out of 555 school districts would qualify. In districts where the schools are functioning better, local voters and school boards can decide for themselves if they want to expand choice in their area.

Kids Firs claims to make the teachers and schools of Michigan even better, while rescuing kids in the school districts that are not performing. The three aforementioned components supposedly balance the need for more choice and accountability together with the desire of public educators for revenue stability. The ballot initiative lays out the broad foundation for reform, while prudently assigning the Michigan legislature to address specific implementation issues as they arise in the future. (Kids First, 2000)
Other Comments:
On one side are conservatives, inner-city parents fed up with bad schools, religious organizations and business groups concerned that public schools are turning out workers unable to fill the jobs of the 21st century.

On the other side are parents, teachers and administrators trying to improve public schools, as well as those who worry vouchers would divert tax funds to private schools, undermine the promise of an equal education for all children and leave behind students with special needs.

“Vouchers are a ticket to nowhere,” said Lu Battaglieri, incoming president of the Michigan Education Association. ” Remember during the Vietnam era when officials told us that to save the villages, we had to destroy them? We’re getting that same sort of mentality” toward public schools.

Voucher supporters say vouchers are the quickest way to give students stuck in bad schools a way out. With a voucher worth roughly $3,000 in hand, students could immediately afford tuition at a religious or private school, without having to wait and see if promises of public school improvements pan out.

“Parents are demanding that they have the ability to put their children into schools of their choice. It’s scary sending your child to an inner-city school today,” said Wes Anderson, a Maryland-based pollster and strategist who is helping Kids First! Yes! with the Michigan campaign.

Even before Kids First! Yes! begins this fall to collect the 302,711 signatures needed to get on the ballot, the campaign’s themes are clear. “The teachers union is probably going to try to paint this as some kind of mechanism to tear down public schools. And if they’re able to do that, they’ll probably defeat it,” said Tom Shields of Lansing-based Marketing Resource Group.

For their part, voucher opponents are afraid supporters will talk only about how the plan could help low-income inner-city children and not mention that it would pay private school tuition for rich children as well. “I don’t think people realize that vouchers are first going to help students who are already in private schools. The way the voucher thing is being presented, you never hear that part,” said Jean Williams, a Kalamazoo schools librarian who serves on the board of Kalamazoo-based Michigan for Public Education.

Shields has children in public schools but supports vouchers as a way to nudge schools to do better. “I’m not sure I’d ever use them, but I’d like to have the opportunity,” he said of vouchers. “It empowers every parent out there and every kid. You put a little bit of entrepreneurism back into schools.” He points to changes in the Lansing public schools, such as all-day kindergarten, that came only after charter schools opened nearby.

While Shields acknowledges public schools offer special education and other programs that many private schools don’t provide, he thinks vouchers would encourage private schools to offer such programs, especially since vouchers for special education students may be higher.

But Linda Bruin, legal counsel for the Michigan Association of School Boards, said vouchers wouldn’t improve public schools, they’d decimate them. “The charter school movement and all of the school choice stuff … is all done to undermine public education,” she said. “This proposal is just another piece of the same picture.”
The Michigan Constitution has banned spending money directly or indirectly on private schools since 1970, when voters approved a ballot issue. In 1978, a coalition of religious and private schools unsuccessfully tried to change it, Bruin said. “It’s not a new issue to Michigan, and it’s an issue where people have strong opinions on it and have been willing to get out there and campaign,” she said. “Emotions will run high.”
At the MEA summer leadership conference in Sault Ste. Marie, training sessions were being held on how to get out the MEA’s message that most public schools work well. Thousands of posters and buttons and brochures were already printed warning of vouchers’ dangers.

Battaglieri won’t set a dollar amount on how much voucher opponents plan to raise, but said he’s expecting it will be in the millions of dollars. “Whatever the other side spends, you have to be ready to match it,” he said. ” I’m comfortable that we have a chance at beating them back. I don’t want to say we’re too comfortable, because then people don’t work hard. Every one of our members is going to have to do their part.”
Voucher supporters see themselves as the underdog, but they’re confident they’ve learned lessons from other states where voucher proposals have been defeated. With the backing of supporters such as Amway Corp. President Richard DeVos of Grand Rapids and Michigan Chamber of Commerce head James Barrett, they’re also assured they’ll have the resources to get the job done.

Campaign manager Jeff Timmer, said the partnership between groups working to get vouchers on the ballot and into the hands of students is strong. “Our goal is to make sure we’re not dramatically outspent,” he said. “They are very committed to this.”
Ballot language
The ballot language submitted Friday by Kids First! Yes! proposes that:
* School districts that had a four-year graduation rate of less than two-thirds in the 1998-99 school year must offer vouchers.

* Each voucher be worth half the average per-pupil amount given in a particular year to public schools, or about $3,000 based on current spending. The vouchers may be higher for special education students.

* School boards in other districts may approve vouchers, and voters in other areas may approve vouchers through a referendum. Once in place, vouchers in those districts could not be repealed by a later vote.

* Teachers in public schools and private schools accepting vouchers undergo regular tests.

Each school district be guaranteed it would receive at least as much operating money per pupil with vouchers in place as it does in the 2000-2001 fiscal year. (South Bend Tribune, 2000)
Conclusion:
Being that the school voucher program was floored by a 2-to-1 margin, it is evident that Michigan residents are not ready for this kind of change. Many voters believed that the proposal would gut the Michigan public education system. The proposal was viewed as a way for middle-upper and upper class families to pay for their child’s private education. It was seen as yet another attempt to take advantage of working middle and lower class families.

While it is common knowledge that there are a number of public schools that need severe improvement in critical areas, it appears that relief should come in the form of targeted public funding and more teacher accountability. Getting teachers to perform at a higher level should come from evaluation periods and testing rather through competing for students.

All in all, public schools have produced legions of capable and well-prepared students that function at high levels in college and in the workforce.

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