The Irascible ProfessorSM

Irreverent Commentary on the State of Education in America Today

by Dr. Mark H. Shapiro
Choice has always been a privilege of those who could afford to pay for it.....  ...Ellen Frankfort.
Commentary of the Day - May 7, 2000: Voucher, Voucher, Who's Got the Voucher?
There probably is no more contentious issue in public education that that of school vouchers.  Typically vouchers are touted as a way to allow poor parents the opportunity to take their kids out of failing public schools, and to put them in more effective private schools.  However, most voucher schemes do not provide low-income parents with the funds needed to send their children to high-quality private or parochial schools.

The recent initiative that "silicon valley" venture capitalist Tim Draper is attempting to place on the November 2000 ballot here in California is a good example of this kind of flawed "school choice" measure.  The initiative, which has been dubbed "The National Average School Funding Guarantee and Parental Right to Choose Quality Education Amendment, eventually would provide a $4,000 "scholarship" to each of the approximately 600,000 students now enrolled in California's private and parochial schools.  Every public school child also would be eligible for one of these $4,000 "scholarships" if the child's parent(s) chose to enroll the student in a private or parochial school.

The major fly in the ointment is that most decent private and parochial schools cost a lot more than $4,000 a year.  This means that most of the benefit of the measure would go to parents who either already have their kids in private schools, or who have enough money to pay the difference.  It also means that most poor children who attend substandard public schools will continue to attend such schools, vouchers or not.

Draper's initiative has a few other interesting features that make a bit more pernicious than most similar voucher or "choice" schemes.  For example, the title of the measure has been chosen, quite cleverly, to imply that if passed it would guarantee that public schools in California would be funded at least at the national average funding level.  However, there is no such guarantee in this proposed amendment to the state constitution!  All the initiative does is make it possible for the California legislature to enact a bill by majority vote of both houses that would bring California's dismal per pupil spending rate up to the national average.  If the legislature and the governor had a mind to do this, it could be done without Draper's initiative.  However, the fact that California now is 41st among the states in per pupil funding suggests that they are not likely to spend much more on public schools in the near future.

Under Draper's plan private schools who accept these "scholarships" would not be able to discriminate on the basis of race, ethnicity, color or national origin.  However, there is nothing in the initiative to prevent private schools from discriminating against students with physical handicaps or learning disabilities, or against students who might not be able to pass their entrance exams (a method that could be used to exclude students who are not fluent in English).  Thus, it is likely that the public schools would be left to deal with all the children with problems, who often need a disproportionate amount of resources.

Draper's plan also would exclude private schools from most of the health, safety, and land use regulations and ordinances that public schools have to meet.  While this might reduce the operating costs for private schools, it also is likely to put many children in danger.  At present California has relatively weak fire safety requirements for public schools.  Currently, there is a bill in the state legislature aimed as strengthening fire safety regulations in public schools.  If this bill is enacted after the passage of Draper's initiative, it would be very difficult to apply the new regulations to private schools.

Draper's initiative would free all private schools in California from any oversight by government.  This means that in schools that accept voucher "scholarships" there will be no means to ensure that teachers in private schools that in effect are being supported by tax dollars meet any standards for education or training.  The only elements of quality control in Draper's measure is the requirement that students in private K-8 schools that accept voucher "scholarships" must take a nationally-normed, standardized test, and that high schools that accept voucher must offer at least one course that meets entrance requirements at an accredited college or university.

Clearly, the Draper initiative has many serious flaws.  However, the most serious problem is that the likely outcome of the initiative would be to cost the taxpayers of California another $2.4 billion per year in "scholarships" for the 600,000 students who already are in private and parochial schools.  Many of these are the children of wealthy parents, who do not need this kind of public welfare.

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