Mushroom Chronicles - Voucher programs offer public systems much-needed competition

By Bill Rost

As a former resident of Ohio and having two children who attended public schools in three states, I've had an abiding interest in the progress of the suit filed against Ohio's school voucher program. Objection to the program, and the basis of the suit, rests on the claim that the program supports religion in violation of the Constitution. That position was dismissed by the Ohio Supreme Court but upheld by the U.S. District and Appellate Courts. On June 27th, the U.S. Supreme Court overturned the Appellate decision, ruling that the program was constitutional and could go forward.

As I listened to the reports of the decision on cable and network news programs, the objections to the ruling were consistent:

  1. It supports primarily parochial schools, thus providing government funding of religion.
  2. It will take money from the public school system, already under-funded.
  3. There will be no control over the quality of education.

The argument based on religious support has always been fraudulent, and should be obvious as such to anyone who is aware of, or participated in, the original GI Bill, the Cold War GI Bill, or the current military tuition programs. In all cases, taxpayer funding is provided to qualified individuals who are then free to decide which educational institution to attend NC State, Notre Dame, American University or a seminary. The government exercises no influence over that personal choice. As the recent decision makes clear, the fact that religious schools may receive the money is incidental and irrelevant as long as that decision was an individual one.

In the Cleveland case, 95 percent of the voucher money went to parochial schools because public schools declined to participate in the program.

The objections based on funding loss, while not part of the suit, resurrect the liberal-left all purpose defensive position "for the Children." There are two points worth noting in this argument. The first point is that the funding provided by the voucher program in Cleveland provides substantially less assistance for attendance at a private (parochial) school than for attendance at an adjacent public school or magnet school 50-70 percent less although parents have to co-pay at private schools. Secondly, over the past three decades funding for public schools has risen at a rate five times the rate of inflation, adjusting for increase/decrease in school populations; yet the universal cry is "more money will fix it." It hasn't yet.

The third, raising the fear of unregulated, God-knows-what-kind-of-education scenarios sidesteps neatly the performance issues of the existing government school system. In Ohio, a requirement for graduating high school is a passing performance on a final competency examination. Since performance has been an issue, this sounds like good policy but the exam requires performance at a ninth grade level. That's right, in order to graduate at a 12th-grade level, you have to prove you can function at a ninth- grade level. Shortly before I left Ohio, parents brought suit against the local school district because their daughter failed the test and would not graduate with her class. Their argument was it would negatively affect her self-esteem! Never mind that, after 12 years in the local system, she couldn't function at a ninth-year level. One can make the argument that she should have applied herself earlier but the bigger question is how did she get that far anyway?

That case is not unique. In the early 70's, my alma mater provided remedial math and English classes to 10 percent of incoming freshmen; last year it was nearly 40 percent. In the last three national spelling bees, did anyone notice the prevalence of home-schoolers in the group of finalists? Milwaukee's voucher program has provided opportunity and performance improvement for low-income kids for several years now. But alternatives are not well received by the educational establishment. Like any monopoly, no effort is too great if it prevents competition. The NEA and AFT have fought vouchers, home schooling, charter schools, merit pay and teacher performance rating with every tool and scare tactic at their disposal. Combined, they represent one of the largest special-interest lobbying groups in existence although the NEA's financial report lists no political expenditures; it's classified as "educational expense." In Milwaukee, the entire state school bureaucracy mobilized against Polly Williams' efforts to provide an alternate to the failed system; a similar effort was mounted in Ohio.

The current system has problems; good teachers are stifled, educational "philosophy" changes regularly, accountability is hard to find. Teaching has become a craft guild admission restricted to those "anointed" by schools of education.

After years of the mantra of money and class size, with little to nothing to show for it, why not allow other seeds to take root? To the claim that there will be failures, so what? It can't be worse than passing generations of students through "new math" followed by "new, new math" or the latest fad in reading.

The difference is that parents will have a choice in where they spend their money. If the current structure can survive the competition, more power to it. If not, it's no more deserving of existence than Enron.

In either case, something will actually have been accomplished "for the children."

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