National Catholic Register


Kept Out of Election Spotlight, School Choice Still Gains Momentum

BY Jim Cosgrove

November 3-9, 1996 Issue | Posted 11/3/96 at 2:00 AM


SUPPORTERS OF school choice may look back favorably on the presidential race, even if their candidate loses the election. Education has been given unprecedentedemphasisinthisyear'scampaign, adding a sense of urgency to the call for reform of the public education system. Former Sen. Bob Dole's staunch endorsement of a federal voucher program— and President Bill Clinton's bitter opposition to it— have put the spotlight on voucher programs being considered by state legislatures around the country.

Voucher initiatives were recently defeated in Texas, California,and Washington,D.C.,butOhioand Wisconsin have approved voucher programs that are currently being tested in Cleveland and Milwaukee. Thousands of children from some of the neediest families in these cities applied for 1,800 state-funded vouchers in Cleveland and 1,650 state-funded vouchers in Milwaukee this year.

Presently, participants in the Milwaukee program can use tuition benefits only at private secular schools. The Wisconsin courts are weighing whether religious schools can be eligible. Until the case is settled, a MilwaukeeorganizationcalledParents Advancing Values in Education (PAVE) is offering half-tuition scholarships to eligible families who want to send their children to religious schools. They raised $4.2 million this year from more than 1,000 private and corporate donors, which helped fund scholarships for 4,300 children.

AccordingtoPAVE'sexecutivedirector,Dan McKinley, Dole's proposed $2.5 billion federal program—which would offer $1,500“opportunity scholarships”to up to 4 million children (10 percent of all school children) nationwide—is based on the PAVE model.

“It would be a successful program if he got elected and put it into play,”McKinley said.“Ninety-six percent of our 4,300 PAVE families say they are‘very satisfied' with their child's education. Ninety-seven percent of the parents participate in the schools, on the PTO or as volunteers.“

“[School choice] is a populist kind of movement … it gives financial power to poor parents,”McKinley said.“And the (teachers') union is standing in the way of kids getting a good education.”

In Wisconsin and elsewhere much of the opposition to the voucher system has been organized and fundedbythe2millionmember-strongNational Education Association(NEA),thelargestpublic school teachers'union in the country. Union members fear vouchers would take money away from the public schools and adversely affect teacher salaries and job security.

Proponentsofschoolchoicedisagreewiththe teachers union that private school vouchers will put the public schools in dire financial straits. School choice is meant to offer just that, they argue, a choice between public and private schools, with the hope of improving educationalqualityandefficiencyatallschools through cooperation and competition. The vast majority of the financial support for public schools comes from property taxes paid within the school district. That amount will not be affected by a voucher program. The smaller percentage of funding which comes from the state and federal governments, often calculated on a per-pupil basis, could be affected if fewer students are enrolled in public schools.

But unless there is a dramatic exodus, the public schools are unlikely to be put at risk by most voucher programs, school choice proponents say. In fact, a voucher system could give public schools the leverage to ask state and federal governments to reduce some of their costly bureaucratic requirements in an effort to cutexpensesandoperatemoreefficiently.

For example, a voucher demonstration program proposed in New York would pay $2,500 per pupil for private school tuition. It currently costs the state $9,000tosendastudenttopublic school. The reason for the discrepancy, according to Kathy Gallagher, associate director of the New York State Catholic Conference, is that Catholic and other private schools, are“streamlined.”

Gallagher pointed out that school choicealsodovetailswithanother important issue this election year: welfare reform.“In our way of thinking, school choice is the best possible welfare reform idea you could put across,”she said.“School choice is a way out of the cycle of poverty. It's a way to get a diploma. Our demonstration program is certainly targeted to those needy, disadvantaged children.”

Tom Needles, administrative assistant to Ohio Gov. George Voinovich, arguing that school vouchers can make a huge difference in the lives of many children, 75 percent of the children participating in the Cleveland scholarship program have annual family incomes of about $6,000; the other 25 percent have annual family incomes of no more than $20,000.“Parents don't want to feel their kids are doomed or trapped in a failed (school) district … there is nothing more important than choice to children who may fall through the cracks in this society. Thepublicschoolsystem should not be a monopoly. There ought tobeoptions,” saidNeedles,who helped draft the Ohio school voucher legislation.

In Cleveland, the current voucher program allows parents to choose secular or religious schools. The Ohio legislature created separate funding for the voucher program that does not dip into any public school funds. Vouchers for $2,200 per student, per year, are paid for bythestate'snew “Disadvantaged Pupil Adjustment Fund.”

The Cleveland Catholic schools get a lot of credit for their part in furthering thevoucherprogram. “TheCatholic Diocese of Cleveland has always been on the forefront in major social changes, going back to the desegregation days,”said Bert Holt, director of the Cleveland Scholarshipand TutoringProgram.“Theyhaveahistoryofproviding opportunities benefiting all children.”

A large part of Holt's job involves evaluating the progress of students in thevoucherprogram.Shedisagrees with the teachers' union, and others, who question the effectiveness of the voucher system, based on a controversial study conducted in Milwaukee by a University of Wisconsin professor, John Witte. The Witte study concluded that voucher participants did not progress any faster academically than their public school counterparts.

The study was flawed, according to Holt, because it did not ask the people involved—students, parents, and teach-ers—about their experiences. And it did not track students over the long term.“Our goal is to give the children exit outcomes that prepare them for higher education. We need longitudinal studies that will tell us … how many are graduating, how many are going on to higher learning,howmanyaregainfully employed, how many are not in a penal institution,”said Holt, who is a former public school teacher and administrator.

During the first presidential debate, both candidates spent a lot of time talking in broad terms about their agendas for education reform, and specifically about their positions on school choice.“If a local school district in Cleveland, or any place else, wants to have a private school choice plan, like Milwaukee did, let them have at it,”Clinton,whosupportschoiceonly within the public school system, said during the debate.

Analysts in newspapers around the country disagree about the significance of Clinton's remark. One political insider, Ohio businessman and Republican party operative David Brennan, doubts that Clinton will include private schools in his choice mix if he is re-elected.“Clintondoesnotobjectto[school choice] in principle … but he can't turn his back on the unions,”said Brennan, who has been involved in planning the voucher pilot program for Cleveland.“Thefundamentalquestionhereis whose opinion is more important, the government, or the parent?”

A United States Catholic Conference(USCC)documentpublished in 1995, Principles of Education Reform in the United States, agrees that the parents' right to choose is fundamental.“No one school model fits the needsofallchildren-public,private, Catholic, charter, magnet. We think that all parents have the right to choose,”said Father William Davis, O.S.F.S., the USCC'srepresentativeforCatholic Schools and Federal Assistance.

Inspiteoftheircommitmentto school choice, the USCC does not offer blanket approval of all proposed voucher programs.“We want to read each piece of legislation,”Father Davis said.“Some we are not crazy about.”He pointed out that although vouchers are the hot topic in education reform today, they are not the only way to offer parents a choice.

“It doesn't have to be a voucher. You canalsoreformthetaxcode.In Minnesota, parents are offered a tax deduction, and in Iowa, parents can get a tax credit … for all educational expenses: tuition, transportation, extra-curricular activities,”Father Davis explained.

And while voucher programs currently in place assist families living in poverty, tax credits can also offer assistance to middle class families who pay private school tuition.“The Supreme Court has already ruled (on a case from Minnesota) that it is constitutional. The fact that one parent benefits more than another does not make the law invalid,”Father Davis said.

Molly Mulqueen is based in Colorado Springs, Colo.