- The Washington Times - Saturday, November 5, 2005

Bob Sigman, opinion editor of the Johnson County Sun in Kansas, takes issue with state-financed vouchers used by students to attend the public or private school of their choice. He believes vouchers used this way break down the separation between church and state.

Mr. Sigman and other opponents of school choice should realize the Supreme Court in 2001 ruled vouchers are neutral, neither endorsing nor rejecting religion, and their use is dictated by independent parental choice.

Unfortunately, this myth and many others influenced congressional policy makers to vote down the Family Education Reimbursement Act (FERA), sponsored by Republican Reps. John Boehner of Ohio and Bobby Jindal of Louisiana.

This proposal would have provided needed relief and parental choice options for the 372,000 students displaced by Hurricane Katrina by letting them enroll in a school of their parents’ choice for the 2005-06 school year.

The Wall Street Journal considered FERA the best proposal because it would have circumvented the education bureaucracy that makes it difficult to provide immediate relief to families in need. Perhaps fiscal conservatives voting down the measure weren’t aware that, according to Alan Bonsteel and Carl Brodt of the California Parents for School Choice, bureaucratic inefficiency has meant “2 of every 5 tax dollars raised for schools do not even make it to the classroom.” (“Ten Principles of School Choice,” 2004).

Legislators should be reminded private schools are operated more cheaply than public schools. Compare the average private school tuition, $4,689 to the average cost of educating a student in public school at $8,830, as reported by the National Center for Education Statistics. Each child educated outside the public school system saves the state $3,535. Having money follow the child saves taxpayer dollars. (“ABCs of School Choice,” 2005).

That families would have been allowed to choose the best school — public, private or charter — assuredly raised the hackles of those fearing the program’s success would provide a catalyst for demands that school choice be available to all children. In fact, taxpayers finance vouchers just as they do public schools. Some taxpayers would rather see their children attend private schools. Why should they pay twice?

Vouchers create competition among public and private schools. Public schools are forced to improve or lose enrollment. Studies by Jay Greene, Marcus Winter and Carol Innerst in Florida, Caroline Hoxby in Wisconsin, Jay Greene and Greg Forster in Texas and Christopher Hammons in Maine and Vermont all provide evidence that school choice helps public schools perform better. (“The ABCs of School Choice,” 2005.)

Another myth perpetuated by Mr. Sigman (“No need for vouchers”), that true comparisons between public and private school aren’t possible until the playing field is leveled, is simply inaccurate. He argues, “Private schools do not have to provide special education services.” Yet, as reported in the June 2005 School Choice Advocate, parents of children diagnosed with learning disabilities do send their children to private schools to take advantage of smaller, more focused learning environments which can improve academic performance and self-confidence.

Utah passed a voucher bill aimed at allowing “special needs” children to take advantage of private schools with specialized curricula that address distinct learning disabilities.

Mr. Sigman moans: “Public schools must negotiate employment contracts with teachers, private schools do not. That can result in higher costs for salaries and other benefits.”

According to an October 2005 press release from Mr. Boehner, the FERA proposal tried to work around the education establishment by disposing of the layers of educational bureaucracy that drive up costs and suggested working with an independent contractor to expediently meet demands of displaced families and their schools in a cost-efficient manner.

Though private schools are not required to have state accreditation, most have stringent curriculum standards. Underperforming private schools fail because attendance is not required. This means teachers must be very qualified and make the effort required for success. Lower salaries do not deter good teachers from working in private school environments because they encounter fewer behavioral issues and more administrative support. Students are expected to meet curricular demands to make them eligible for admission to four-year colleges.

“If the state starts funding private schools through vouchers, Kansas Republican State Sen. John Vratil warns [in Mr. Sigman’s op-ed], “there will be strings attached…. Inevitably, the state will impose education requirements on private schools similar to those that govern public schools.”

Heartland Institute President Joseph L. Bast and Board Chairman Herb Walberg disagree in “Ten Principles of School Choice”: Language can be included as part of a constitutional amendment establishing, “that the autonomy of private schools is in the public interest and that all regulations affecting private schools are ‘frozen’ at their pre-voucher levels.” Regulatory bodies should have their “membership equally balanced between government and private school interests.” They also suggest other ways to combat this possibility.

It is fiscally irresponsible to allow myths and irrational fears to influence the decisions of our elected representatives. We the people need to express dissatisfaction with the educational status quo that leaves some children behind, and embrace the free market’s power to drive up educational quality.

NANCY SALVATO

President

The Basics Project

Downers Grove, Ill.

( www.Basicsproject.org )

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