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Ballot Primer

Getting ready for Prop. 38 and the great voucher debate

By Tate Hausman

LOOKING for a new blood sport? Then try this fun experiment: Enter a crowded room of education reformers, experts, professors--maybe even senators--and yell, "Vouchers!" If you don't get trampled in the ensuing fray, you'll be treated to quite a show.

Listening to some education policymakers, the average observer might think that the Great Voucher Debate represents a full-scale Armageddon, where the righteous are violently battling the wicked over the future of American public schools. The very term voucher has become a hollow buzzword that kills intelligent debate.

What the rhetoric fails to explain, of course, is what exactly vouchers are all about, and why the public--including California voters, who will vote for the first time on the issue when Proposition 38 hits the ballot in November--should either support or condemn them. The following voucher Cliff Notes, including key definitions of the terms used by policymakers and the media, should properly arm you with the jargon and opinions necessary to fling yourself headlong into the Great Debate.

Definitions:

* Voucher: A fixed amount of public money--usually about $2,000 to $3,000--that a state or school district gives to parents to enable them to send their children to private schools. The voucher pays for some or all of a private-school tuition, and the parents pay the remainder. Voucher plans have been implemented, with varying degrees of success, in Wisconsin, Vermont, Ohio, and Maine, and have been suggested or planned in many other states. Also called "tuition vouchers," "tuition choice plans," or "public scholarships."

* Private Scholarship Program: Identical to a voucher system, but funds come from private philanthropists and foundations instead of from taxpayers. More than 30 cities, including Indianapolis, Cleveland, Washington, New York, and Los Angeles, have private scholarship programs.

* Donor Tax Credits: Income tax credit--usually around $500--given to anyone who donates money to private scholarship foundations or public schools. Would encourage private voucher programs at public expense.

Arguments for vouchers:

1. All children, regardless of their class background, deserve the opportunity to attend good schools. Vouchers would allow any child to attend a private school, which is better than a public school.

2. Introducing vouchers into the school system will make education a consumer good. This will naturally create competition in the market, which will create better schools. Bad public schools will either lose all their funding and close or be forced to improve their "product."

3. Vouchers will give low-income parents--especially minorities--some leverage in the monolithic system that dominates their children's lives. Since public schools, even in the inner city, are disproportionately controlled by middle- or upper-class whites, vouchers would give lower-class and minority parents the economic clout they desperately need to have a voice in their local schools.

4. The government never uses funds as efficiently as the private sector. Diverting public funds into private hands will stretch taxpayer dollars further.

5. By not allowing public funds to go to sectarian schools, the government is impinging on the freedom of parents to express their religious views, in violation of the First Amendment.

6. Any change in public education is good change since it challenges the status quo and creates innovation. Public education is too protected by its own inertia and bureaucracies, notably teachers' unions and school boards. Vouchers will upset that inertia and create positive change.

7. Many public schools are unsafe. All children deserve to learn in the safe, drug-free, disciplined environments that private schools offer.

Arguments against vouchers:

1. Private schools are not necessarily better schools--in fact, they can be tuition-hungry diploma mills that allow lax discipline and poor academic standards in return for high tuitions and parental donations.

2. Competition in and between schools means cutting costs to produce cheaper, easier products. If schools are always concerned about their bottom lines, they will be tempted to reduce staff, to buy low-quality, cheap materials, to increase teachers' burdens, and to pay teachers less--all of which have been proven to impinge on good teaching.

3. Vouchers will transfer too much power into the hands of consumers, whose decision to exploit the vouchers will undermine public school teachers and administrators by significantly decreasing their funding.

4. Diverting much-needed funds from already strapped public schools will only damage public education. Public schools need more support from our treasuries, not less.

5. Most private schools (in some states as many as 90 percent) are religiously affiliated--largely with the Catholic Church. Through vouchers, public money will inevitably be used in religious schools, violating the principle of the separation of church and state.

6. Vouchers will threaten the job security of many underpaid, overworked teachers, especially the most dedicated ones working at the toughest inner-city schools. Good teachers will be shuffled from school to school at the whim of a highly volatile market, destroying their ability to teach effectively.

7. Studies have shown that private schools are not necessarily any cleaner than public schools. Discipline, safety, and drug abuse depend on the administration of the school, not its funding sources.

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From the August 10-16, 2000 issue of the Sonoma County Independent.

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