WASHINGTON — Sen. John McCain has spoken boldly about school voucher programs as an effective way to improve education.
“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 Pope.
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 his administration.
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 from them.”
“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.
Campanella 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.
This 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,” Campanella said.
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 students apply.
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.