TOPICS > Education

Should Public Money Be Used for Private Schools?

April 1, 2013 at 12:00 AM EST
The Indiana Supreme Court upheld a law allowing taxpayer money to be used for private schools through vouchers. Hari Sreenivasan examines the implications with Kevin Chavous, executive counsel for American Federation for Children, which promotes vouchers, and Dennis van Roekel, president of the National Education Association.
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MARGARET WARNER: Now the debate over vouchers and school choice is heating up anew in some states — the latest, last week, the Indiana Supreme Court upheld a 2011 state law allowing tax funds to be used for private schools through tuition vouchers.

We turn again to Hari for that story.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Ahead of last week’s ruling, Republican Gov. Mike Pence rallied students and parents at the state legislature in Indianapolis in support of the voucher program.

In 2011, education correspondent John Tulenko visited Indiana soon after the law passed and found passions still strong on both sides. Then-state Superintendent Tony Bennett was the driving force behind the Republican-led choice movement.

TONY BENNETT, Former Indiana State Superintendent: What this has done, it has allowed — and the statistics are bearing it — it is allowing families the opportunity to pursue prosperity for their children.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Democratic State Representative Ed DeLaney said he preferred high-quality public schools over choice.

STATE REP. EDWARD DELANEY, D- Ind.: This is not a scientific experiment. It’s an attempt in my view to just push down public education.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Indiana is one of more than 15 states that allows public funds to be used for private education. There are several types of choice programs, including vouchers, scholarship tax credits, and in Arizona, where the state provides education savings accounts allowing public money to be used for tuition, supplies and books.

While most programs target the poor and those who live in districts with failing schools, Indiana’s is far more expansive, opened to households with incomes of up to $64,000 dollars a year for a family of four.

In 2002, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that providing school vouchers, which can be used at religious schools, doesn’t violate the separation of church and state, leaving individual states to decide. Some state courts have overturned school choice programs like vouchers, while others, such as Indiana’s have upheld them.

Next year in Indiana, more than half of the students will be eligible for vouchers worth up to $4,500 dollars per child.

For more on the fallout from the Indiana case and the broader national outlook, we turn to two leading voices on opposing sides. Kevin Chavous is executive counsel for and a founding member of American Federation for Children, a group promoting vouchers and school choice. And Dennis Van Roekel is the president of the National Education Association, the largest labor union. It represents more than three million public school employees, most of them teachers.

Thanks for joining us.

Kevin, I want to start with you.

How concerned are you about this Indiana case? What are the broader implications?

KEVIN CHAVOUS, American Federation for Children: Well, the broader implications are clear, Hari.

People really want change. You really need to go back to “A Nation at Risk.” This is the 30th anniversary of that landmark federal report in which it said that we were running a major risk in terms of not being able to educate all of our children. The educational outcomes, if a unilateral force had done this outside of this country, it would be declared an act of war.

Well, things have gotten worse. And the bottom line is people and parents are clamoring for change. And that’s why you see that these scholarship programs, these voucher programs, tax credits, they’re emerging all over the country, because people don’t want to be consigned to a bad school based on zip code.

And this really isn’t about partisan politics. It really is about making sure that parents have as many quality options as possible available to educate their children.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Dennis Van Roekel, do you think this is possibly a tipping point, that this will refocus or reframe the conversation?

DENNIS VAN ROEKEL, President, National Education Association: Well, the legal implications for Indiana don’t go beyond the borders because it simply applies in Indiana.

I do think it will increase the conversation. And I don’t think that’s bad. I think it’s important that we talk about the students in America that are not getting the education they so richly deserve. But I think what we have to do is to stay focused. We need to stay focused on the right of every child to have a good public education. And for those who oppose vouchers, what we believe is that you do not use — pay private school tuition at taxpayer expense.

Instead, we ought to do what we know works. Take schools and invest in early childhood. Increase parental involvement, small class size, especially in high-poverty schools at the lower grades. Make sure that we have a well-trained, qualified and certified work force that is stable.

When we do that, children succeed. But we do not believe it is a solution to take the few out and leave the rest behind.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Kevin Chavous, what about that argument, that there is going to be inherent inequality?

KEVIN CHAVOUS: Well, we know what works. Yes, we know what works.

Accountability works, higher standards, higher expectations. And part of the challenge is we have got to figure out the best way to fly the plane while we fix it. Fixing it is all the things that Dennis talked about even more. We have got to look at work rules. We have got to look at paying at our quality teachers more and firing the bad teachers.

But as we have seen since “A Nation at Risk” 30 years ago, that’s going to take years of work. In the meantime, half the kids of color are dropping out of American schools. Our good schools aren’t as good as they used to be. And even before I finish this sentence, Hari, a child is going to drop out.

What do we do to help those kids that we know are consigned to bad schools? In the D.C. scholarship program, we know that 94 percent of those kids who are getting those vouchers are graduating; 89 percent are going to college. And 100 percent of those kids who come from families with a combined family income of $24,000 dollars came from schools that were failing.

So, at the end of the day, we have got to fly this plane while we fix it. And to do the accountability stuff and the long-range stuff, some of the things that Dennis talked about, it may take another 30 years. But we can’t afford as a nation to let the sameness of what we have been doing continue to cripple our children and our future.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Dennis?

DENNIS VAN ROEKEL: I believe you can go to any state in this country and find incredible examples of making a difference.

Members of my organization go to a school each and every day giving everything they have to help children succeed. What we need to do is provide them with services and the programs they need to assist children.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Do you think vouchers wouldn’t make that happen?

DENNIS VAN ROEKEL: No, I believe it’s a shortsighted solution.

It’s changing the American focus that we ought to provide it for some and not for all. It’s such an inequitable system in America. You can go into some schools that have elaborate science laboratories, all kinds of technology, well-qualified and well-trained faculty. And you can go into others that look like they’re abandoned factories. That’s wrong.

In the richest, most powerful nation in the world, the fact that it’s just wrong that we don’t provide that for every child, regardless of your zip code. I don’t think we should accept nor tolerate a system that only provides a good education for some. And the answer is to invest in those schools now. They do want to change. Parents want their kids to go to a neighborhood school that meets their needs, that has the resources and the programs they need to succeed.

And that’s what the focus of America should be, not just on some, but for every single child in America.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Kevin, I just want to ask you.

KEVIN CHAVOUS: Sure.

HARI SREENIVASAN: He keeps talking about that sort of inequality, that possibility that in a voucher system, you could have a lottery where some families will qualify for a school and then the school that they like, they didn’t get into and they’re kind of stuck back in the school that they were at.

KEVIN CHAVOUS: What do we do?

I mean, let’s look at it. In Florida, where we have 50,000 kids in a tax credit program, a study done by David Figlio and Cassandra Hart from Northwestern University showed that the kids who didn’t get the vouchers, their standardized test scores did better.

And you know why? Because the competition really does matter. I mean, no school district has ever reformed itself from within. They never have. They never will. The best form of change, the best way to get to where Dennis and I both want these kids and these families to get to is through external pressure. And the best form of external pressure is through educational choice.

Look, this is not an either/or zero sum gain. I’m not saying that all kids need to avail themselves or all families need to avail themselves of scholarships or vouchers. What I’m saying is, through tax credits, through scholarships and vouchers, through charter schools, homeschools, traditional public schools, we need to put all options on the table.

That’s the only way we’re going to fly this plane while we fix it, help those kids with immediate needs, and also provide the impetus for public schools to right-size themselves.

HARI SREENIVASAN: All right, Dennis, what about the idea that we have this system where G.I. Bills, Pell Grants, and for post-secondary education, we’re taking taxpayer money and distributing it through people to whatever school that they’re interested in? Why is it so different for primary and high school education and kindergarten?

DENNIS VAN ROEKEL: I think post-secondary education, college and university, I think you have to put that into a different category than K-12 education, because then you’re choosing between a career or college and specialized training. That definitely makes sense.

But for young children, they shouldn’t have to be bussed somewhere. It should be in their neighborhood. We do know what needs to be done in these schools. And too many of these schools, especially in communities of high poverty, they have a transient work force. They don’t have teachers teaching in a certified area. They’re teaching out of their area of expertise.

I was a high school math teacher for 23 years. I hope I was a good math teacher all those years. But if you were to put me in the music class, I wouldn’t have been an effective teacher. And in too many of our schools of poverty, they’re doing that. And it’s wrong.

What we need to do is to make sure that we have a well-trained, certified work force that is stable, provide the services and programs, and especially the wrap-around services, so that we remove obstacles from students that don’t enable them to learn.

HARI SREENIVASAN: All right, my math says my time is up.

Dennis Van Roekel and Kevin Chavous, thanks so much for joining us.

KEVIN CHAVOUS: Thank you very much.

DENNIS VAN ROEKEL: Thank you.