Public Dollars for Private Schools? Voices from the Voucher Debate

Vouchers are the most controversial of reforms

Private school is nice

Of all the reforms dotting today’s education landscape, vouchers are among the most controversial.

Their purpose is to provide state monies to subsidize children’s tuition at private and religious K-12 schools.

Since the 2010 elections, pro-voucher bills have been popping up in states across the country including Pennsylvania, New Jersey, Florida, Ohio, and Louisiana. Last month, President Obama agreed to renew and expand the only federally-funded voucher program for students in D.C.

While most subsidies are reserved for low-income children and children with disabilities, a new wave of programs—like the one created by Indiana Governor Mitch Daniels—make vouchers available to members of the middle class.

Whether they’re called “opportunity scholarships”  or “education savings accounts,” all voucher plans have one thing in common: they channel tax dollars away from public schools and into private ones.

Activists on both sides of the debate are pouring millions of dollars into campaigns for and against vouchers, hoping to sway public opinion and legislation in their favor.

Here’s a sampling of some of their views:

Florida Governor Rick Scott: "The parent should figure out where the dollars for that student are spent. So if the parents want to spend it on virtual school, then spend it on virtual school. If they want to spend it on, you know, whatever education system they believe in, whether it's this public school or that public school or this private school or that private school, that's what ought to happen."

David Broderic, spokesman for the Pennsylvania State Education Association, representing 191,000 public school teachers and staff: "It doesn't make sense to cut public schools by $1.2 billion because you say you can't afford it—and propose to spend $500 million on tuition vouchers for private schools."

Joseph Bast, President and CEO of the Heartland Institute: “Like most other conservatives and libertarians, we see vouchers as a major step toward the complete privatization of schooling. In fact, after careful study, we have come to the conclusion that they are the only way to dismantle the current socialist regime…Government schools will diminish in enrollment and thus in number as parents shift their loyalty and vouchers to superior-performing private schools.”

Pema Levy, editorial assistant at The American Prospect: “Underwhelming studies of voucher programs have damaged their reputation, even among conservatives prone to liking them…We actually have hard evidence showing that they don't work very well.”

Jodi Timmerman, Ohio mom who uses vouchers to send two of her children to parochial schools: "I know the classrooms [in public schools] are pretty crowded. But at St. Pius they're not, so we're happy about that. It's a smaller environment."

Professor Howard Fuller, former superintendent of Milwaukee schools and longtime school choice advocate, on extending voucher programs to the middle class: "This is when I got off the train…I oppose universal vouchers. I always have, I always will."

Milton Friedman, Nobel Prize winning economist who introduced the idea of vouchers in the 1950’s: “Vouchers are not an end in themselves; they are a means to make a transition from a government to a free-market system."

Steve Nelson, Head of the Calhoun School in Manhattan: “I am the head of a private school and yes there are, in fact, rich folks who send their children here. There are also plenty of poor folks. They don't need vouchers. We, and nearly all other private schools, offer a great deal of financial aid—in our case, $3.5 million per year…Private schools also have, for better or worse, selective admissions processes. It is disingenuous to lead the public to believe you can walk to your local private school with a voucher and sign up.”

Robert Enlow, head of the Foundation for Educational Choice: "I think we should be looking at a system of education in America, that funds the child wherever they want to go. Regardless of the school system that we have in front of us."

The ACLU, in a letter opposing legislation to restart D.C.'s federally-funded voucher program: “Congress should not authorize sending taxpayer dollars to fund—directly or indirectly—the religious education of children… Private religious schools have a clear and undisputed right to include religious content in their school curriculum—when those schools are privately funded… Without holding private and religious schools to the same standards as we hold public schools, voucher programs could expose students to otherwise illegal discrimination, particularly on the basis of disability, sex, or religion.”

Michelle Rhee, Former D.C. Schools Chancellor and founder/CEO of StudentsFirst, on why she supports vouchers: “I was no longer willing to look these parents in the eye and say, ‘You know what? Give me five more years to make your school better.’ I wasn't willing to ask families to accept anything less than I'd want for my kids… I know there are many who hold the view, like I did, that there is just something wrong with supporting private school scholarships. But I ask you to think about what's worse: supporting public funding for private schools, or allowing poor children to stay in chronically failing schools?”

(Photo: Anne Rossley Real Estate/Creative Commons)

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