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School voucher proposals have long been a popular election-year issue, and this year is no different.
BY CHARLIE SPIERINGREGISTER CORRESPONDENT
WASHINGTON — Sen. John McCain has
spoken boldly about school voucher programs as an effective way to improve
“I want every American family to
have the same choice that Cindy and I made and Senator Obama and Mrs. Obama
made, as well,” the Republican presidential candidate said at a candidates’
forum at the Saddleback Church in Lake Forest, Calif., this summer, “and that
was we wanted to send our children to the school of our choice.”
School voucher proposals have long
been a popular election-year issue, especially for Republican presidential
candidates. The issue remains a popular message with religious voters, who often
make financial sacrifices to send their children to parochial schools.
Pope Benedict XVI gave Catholic
schools a boost last week when he spoke to representatives of Italian Catholic
educational centers Sept. 25.
“The Catholic school is an
expression of the right of all citizens to freedom of education, and the
corresponding duty of solidarity in the building of civil society,” said the
Proposals in the United States would
allow parents to receive taxpayer-funded vouchers to pay for their children to
attend private schools. President Ronald Reagan supported vouchers in the
1980s, and the issue has been widely touted by President George W. Bush during
The Democratic presidential nominee,
Sen. Barack Obama, has criticized McCain for “recycling tired rhetoric about
vouchers and school choice,” and stated his opposition to vouchers in a July 13
speech to the American Federation of Teachers. “I do oppose using public money
for private school vouchers,” he told the union. “We need to focus on fixing
and improving our public schools, not throwing our hands up and walking away
“I don’t think that vouchers are
tired rhetoric,” challenged Andrew Campanella, director of communications at
the Alliance for School Choice. “If you ask any parent
of any child that receives vouchers or a scholarship, they won’t tell you that
its rhetoric; they will tell you that it’s a real solution that’s saving their
children’s lives in many cases.”
Janet Bass, a spokeswoman for the
American Federation of Teachers, noted that multiple studies show that voucher
programs do not help improve schools.
“It’s just a waste of children’s
time and a waste of taxpayers’ money,” she said. “The time and money should be
spent on programs that actually work and boost student achievement.”
The American Federation of Teachers
endorsed Obama for president just before his July 13 speech, at the union’s
80th annual convention.
noted that during the Democratic primaries — and prior to the union’s
endorsement — Obama’s rhetoric indicated he would be open to vouchers. “If
there was any argument for vouchers, it was ‘All right, let’s see if this
experiment works,’ and if it does, then whatever my preconceptions, my attitude
is: You do what works for the kids,” Obama told the Milwaukee Journal
Sentinel in February.
Sen. Hillary Clinton, D-N.Y., was
also criticized by voucher supporters for suggesting during her presidential
campaign that a voucher program wouldn’t be able to discriminate against
radical schools. “So what if the next parent comes and says, ‘I want to send my
child to the School of the Jihad?’” Clinton warned, “I won’t stand for it.”
The public remains divided on the
issue, however. An August 12 poll for the Program on Education Policy and
Goverance at Harvard University showed that support for using funds for
low-income families hovered around 40%, while about 40% stated their opposition
to the proposal. And 20% of respondents said that they neither favored nor
opposed such funding.
Although the implementation of
legislation in favor of vouchers has been hotly debated in recent years, and
presidential candidates continue to tout the issue, only small gains have been
accomplished on the federal level.
President Bush successfully instituted
the Opportunity Scholarship Program in Washington, D.C. The program offers
federally funded scholarships to disadvantaged children of low-income families
who wish to attend private schools in the District of Columbia. The program
serves about 1,900 boys and girls from families with an average income of
$23,000 a year.
But Campanella noted that successful
efforts are being made on the state level, as well. “It’s really a state
issue,” he said, noting that 11 states have implemented 17 successful voucher programs
or education tax credits.
November, Floridians will vote on an amendment to the state constitution that
would allow public funding of school-choice programs. This is the latest
effort by voucher advocates to overcome a 2006 Florida Supreme Court ruling
that argued that the state’s Opportunity Scholarship Program violated the
constitutional separation of church and state.
Meanwhile, polls in Georgia suggest
that the idea has gained support, with 66% of citizens supporting scholarships
that would let students transfer out of failing schools.
But Bass derides Republican efforts
to raise the voucher issue once again. “It’s really a red herring,” she said.
“It may sound good on the stump, but it doesn’t work in the classroom.”
Campanella disagreed, noting that
successful state voucher programs are receiving support from Democrats as well
as Republicans. “We see that this issue is becoming increasingly bipartisan,”
As for Washington, D.C., the
scholarship program is crucial for low-income families, according to Susan
Gibbs, communications director for the Archdiocese of Washington.
“That’s what it’s supposed to be
for, ultimately, to give children of low-income families the chance to
succeed,” she said. “Academically, the students are doing well, the parents
have a high satisfaction rate, and there is a high demand.”
About 60% of the program’s
participants attend Catholic schools. For each scholarship available, five
Added Gibbs, “It’s working
here, so it’s a good model for the rest of the country.”
Charlie Spiering is based in Washington, D.C.