Much Ado About Nothing

Much Ado About Nothing

Making vouchers a reality requires a delicate balancing act, aligning politicians, courts, and most

When the U.S. Supreme Court issued a ruling in June upholding a school voucher program in Cleveland, pundits across the country said the decision would transform the nature of education in America. They predicted a state-by-state shakeout, with school choice advocates plotting their next offensive, minority parents forming powerful grassroots movements, and Republican legislators slyly soliciting support for voucher amendments.

While the rhetoric has been strong-President George W. Bush called the ruling "just as historic" as the 1954 decision that outlawed segregated schools-the course for real action remains mined with obstacles.

First is the political climate. Only Ohio, Wisconsin and Florida have adopted publicly funded voucher programs, and Florida's program was ruled unconstitutional in August by a Circuit Court judge. (The ruling is under appeal.) In the past, voucher legislation has been defeated in Arizona, New Mexico, Pennsylvania and Texas.

Republican governors are often the biggest voucher supporters, but with gubernatorial races taking place this month in 36 states, who knows what's in the stars? "There are not a lot of states where vouchers are going to be politically feasible right off the bat," says Richard Komer, a senior litigation attorney for the pro-voucher legal advocacy group, Institute for Justice in Washington, D.C.

Successful voucher movements, in fact, require an unusually well-timed convergence of circumstances. "The programs in Cleveland and Milwaukee required an odd coalition of inner-city minorities who supported vouchers and reform-minded Republicans in the legislature," Komer says. "Vouchers could happen-with the support of a few Democratic leaders, a state legislature with a significant Republican presence, and a Republican governor."

The second obstacle is the economy. "The argument that vouchers drain money from public schools will have particular resonance if states are trying to balance their budgets," says Todd Ziebarth, a policy analyst for the Education Commission of the States, a Denver-based, non-profit, nonpartisan organization whose membership includes key legislative and educational leaders from every state.

Another obstacle is state constitutional language. Nearly all states have either Blaine Amendments, which is specific language prohibiting state aid from going to religious schools, or compelled support language, which say its residents can't be compelled to support a church or religious ministry without consent. Only three state constitutions-in Maine, North Carolina and Louisiana-do not contain either form of restrictive language. According to Komer, the Institute for Justice thinks the language has been interpreted too broadly and plans to challenge it in some states.

The fourth obstacle is the opposition itself. Powerful voucher opponents include the American Association of School Administrators, the National Education Association and other teachers' unions across the country. While proponents say vouchers offer hope to low-income students in troubled schools, foster competition and increase parent satisfaction, opponents say they cream the best students from public systems and divert taxpayer money to private institutions. And there's little to support that vouchers improve academic performance; a study by the investigative arm of Congress in October 2001 found little or no difference in academic achievement between voucher and public school students.

A final obstacle is the court of public opinion. Pro-voucher ballot initiatives have been soundly defeated seven times in five states since they were first introduced in Maryland in 1972. Besides Maryland, vouchers have been trounced in Michigan, Colorado, California and Washington. An Associated Press poll conducted in July found that 51 percent of voters supported vouchers for low-income families. But the number dropped to 31 percent when voters were told vouchers would mean less money for public schools. "I don't think you're going to be seeing referendums much because it's so hard for the pro-voucher people to win," predicts Paul Houston, executive director of the AASA. "We've had fights with public votes, and we've won every time."

Despite all of these obstacles, the Supreme Court decision-which in essence says states may give parents money to send their children to private schools-has given new momentum to pro-voucher movements across the country. In the nation's capitol, House Majority Leader Dick Armey, a Texas Republican, introduced a bill to provide vouchers to 8,300 low-income families in Washington, D.C.

"The states to watch will be those with the most conservative legislators and with a high number of parochial schools," says Houston. "You're going to see pressure in the inner-cities where some schools are failing. Rural communities won't be as interested because of transportation issues and because overcrowding isn't a problem. And affluent communities will be disinterested because they don't need vouchers."

In the past, Arizona, Illinois, Iowa, Minnesota, Pennsylvania and Puerto Rico have adopted education tax credit or tax deduction programs, and Maine and Vermont have longstanding voucher variations, according to the ECS. Ziebarth predicts that one or two states may develop programs in the coming years that replicate the voucher systems in Cleveland or in Milwaukee, Wis., where 10,000 low-income students are using vouchers to attend public and private schools.

"Given that there appears to be support in communities with failing public schools, will there be a real grassroots push for these initiatives?" Ziebarth wonders. "Will we see this in Los Angeles, New York City or Chicago? I'm curious to see."

In the meantime, here's what's happening in a few key states:

FLORIDA

In August, a circuit court judge ruled that Florida's voucher law violates the state's constitution. Later, the judge said the state could issue more vouchers while an appeal was underway, as long as it set aside money to repay school districts if the law was ultimately struck down. The A-plus Opportunity Scholarship Program, created in 1999 by Gov. Jeb Bush, makes vouchers of up to $4,000 available to students whose schools have received failing grades in two out of four years. The program initially involved a small number of students at two Pensacola elementary schools; this year, 8,900 students at 10 public schools qualified for vouchers. By mid-September, only 446 of those students had taken a state voucher to a private school, according to a St. Petersburg Times report.

Much more popular is the McKay Scholarship Program. Begun in 2000, it allows students with disabilities to attend another public or a private school of their parents' choice. The McKay program and the Florida Corporate Income Tax Credit Scholarship Program round out Florida's three voucher programs. Neither is affected by the lawsuit.

Mollie Ray, one of 105 elementary schools in Orange County, received its second failing grade from the state in 2002, so vouchers became available to parents in June. As of mid-September, 76 of the 600 students had left to attend one of four other designated public schools in the area and 53 were attending a private school, according to Deborah Manuel, deputy superintendent for instruction and curriculum services for Orange County Public Schools. In addition, four teachers were reassigned by the superintendent and one left voluntarily. "In order to improve achievement, we gave the principal a chance to make a choice about who should stay on staff and who needed to leave," Manuel explains.

On the one hand, the state's voucher initiative has brought resources and attention to the neediest schools, as well as support from the community; a local homebuilders' association, for example, has offered to landscape the grounds at Mollie Ray while giving kids a real-life lesson in math and science. But vouchers also have the potential to drain dollars from the district budget, according to Manuel. For example, the district had to create an additional route to bus students to the designated public school farthest from Mollie Ray. The route will cost the district $21,600 for the 2002-03 school year, according to Manuel.

She advises other superintendents to know which schools in their district have the potential to become voucher schools and to work to improve them. "Have a plan if it looks like legislation is imminent," she says. "If you're not earning as much funding from the state, you'll have to adjust your budget." A good plan, according to Manuel, should include communication with parents, as well as cooperation among departments such as personnel, pupil placement and transportation.

NEW JERSEY

In July, the City Council in Camden, a struggling inner-city district with 18,000 students, unanimously approved a resolution to seek state approval for a parental-choice program like Milwaukee's. The program would give families a tuition scholarship of $6,000 to use at any participating private school. The resolution was backed by Excellence in Education for Everyone, a Newark-based group whose founders include Republican Bret Schundler, the former Jersey City mayor.

"We've been courting the City Council for a really long time because we view them as the grassroots level of political power," says Derrell Bradford, E3's director of communications. "They're the ones who are closest to the people, so when they vote for something, it's really meaningful. And we know this will only happen if it comes from the bottom up."

Among those who oppose the resolution is the New Jersey Education Association, one of the country's most powerful teachers' unions. Annette Knox, Camden City Public Schools superintendent, did not respond to several phone calls and a written request for an interview.

For now, the Camden resolution stands in name only. E3 isn't planning to bring it before the state legislature. "The climate politically is caustic around this right now," says Bradford. "We don't want this to go before the legislature and get shot down." Instead, he says, E3 will concentrate on building a state-wide school choice coalition made up of like-minded city councils, businesses, educators and parents.

To school reformers, New Jersey is an unusual state because its constitutional language is less explicit regarding public aid for religious schools, says Bradford. Plus, it has a law that says the 30 property-poor, or Abbott, districts must be funded at the same level as the richest districts. That performance in these districts still lags behind is taken by Bradford's group to mean that more than money is needed to make reforms in Camden and elsewhere.

PENNSYLVANIA

A day after the Supreme Court decision in June, House Majority Leader John Perzel, a Philadelphia Republican, was said to be garnering support from colleagues for a last-minute voucher initiative. In prior years, former Gov. Tom Ridge failed on at least two occasions to pass voucher legislation. Now, Pennsylvania is in the midst of a heated gubernatorial race as Republican Mike Fisher, a voucher proponent, squares off against Democrat Ed Rendell, the former Philadelphia mayor and a voucher opponent.

"Vouchers are a losing proposition in Pennsylvania," declares Timothy Potts, director of the Pennsylvania School Reform Network. "There's been some interest in Philadelphia, but I'm not certain it's sufficient to generate any kind of legislative activity." Philadelphia has ceded control of some 20 schools to outside agencies, including universities and the private Edison Project. But according to Potts, there is more public support in Pennsylvania for initiatives such as reducing class size, establishing pre-kindergarten and funding teacher training, than there is for vouchers.

Several years ago, in an effort to ease overcrowding, the Southeast Delco school board voted to give vouchers to parents who sent their children to private school or to public schools outside this small, space-crunched district. The Pennsylvania Education Association and a dozen other organizations sued, winning their case when a judge said the district had overstepped its bounds.

In 1994, the Chester Upland school district was declared financially and academically distressed by the state Department of Education, which established a Board of Control to manage the district. Nearly a quarter of the district's 7,800 students attend charter schools, and nine of the district's 10 schools are run by the private Edison enterprise.

"There are no advantages to vouchers in our district from the standpoint that it would be one more blow to our stability here," says Superintendent Dexter Davis. "I imagine teachers would not support more students leaving. We'd have to assess ourselves then, and dwindling enrollment means layoffs of teachers and other support staff."

MINNESOTA

Leave it to Minnesota, the country's most progressive state in terms of school reform, to produce a longtime educator/administrator who goes solidly against the grain. When the Supreme Court voucher decision was handed down, Mark Myles, superintendent of schools for the city of Duluth from 1994 to 1998, wrote an opinion piece for the local newspaper in support of vouchers. "Perceiving parents as customers with a choice is probably unusual," admits Myles, who says vouchers can create competition and offer incentives for change.

Mitchell Pearlstein, president of the Center of the American Experiment, a Minneapolis think tank, says his organization is focused on expanding the existing education tax credits to make them available for tuition and for middle-income families. "Undoubtedly, there will be a voucher bill or two introduced in the 2002-03 session, probably aimed at lower-income kids in failing schools," Pearlstein says. "But this is at its root a tax credit state versus a voucher state when it comes to the school choice movement."

Julio Almanza, Duluth's current superintendent, says vouchers don't offer hope for the poorest families because they cover only a portion of private school tuition. "To me, vouchers and other choice options are a way to avoid our social commitment to educate all children," Almanza says. "We would rather give students $1,000 to attend a $10,000 private school, than put $5,000 into improving a public school."

"In Minnesota, we have an excellent education system, but it is struggling in terms of finances," Almanza says, "and I think initiatives like vouchers and charter schools will only drain more resources from the public schools."

Jennifer Covino, jencovino@hotmail.com, is a contributing editor.


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