VOUCHING FOR SUCCESS?
April 29, 1998
Currently, the House of Representatives is debating legislation that would provide financial assistance for students who wish to attend private or parochial schools in the District of Columbia. Elizabeth Farnsworth and guests discuss the controversy surrounding school voucher programs.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: At least six states and cities like Milwaukee and Houston now provide some financial aid for some students wanting to attend private schools.
A RealAudio version of this segment is available.
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School voucher programs.
Depending on the program, tax credits or vouchers in the form of scholarships are provided to help pay tuition, usually in non-religious private schools, but in a few places in religious ones too. Tomorrow the House of Representatives is expected to vote on legislation to pay for the use of vouchers in private and parochial schools in the District of Columbia. A similar bill has already passed the Senate. The House bill provides scholarships for 2,000 children whose families earn less than about $30,000. Each child could receive up to $3200 for tuition at schools in or near Washington, D.C. And students could get up to $500 for tutoring assistance.
TELEVISION COMMERCIAL: We all agree we need to improve our schools.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: The proposal has sparked an advertising campaign on local television and radio stations and in newspapers. Opponents of the vouchers, led by the National Education Association and the American Federation of Teachers, say the program will further weaken public schools and that it violates separation of church and state by allowing federal money to be used for religious schooling.
TELEVISION COMMERCIAL: Our children's future depends on it.
TELEVISION COMMERCIAL: Every day, thousands of D.C. children report to schools that aren't safe.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Proponents of the program counter that vouchers will provide help for low-income students who don't want to attend the district's trouble-plagued public schools.
SPOKESPERSON: I want to put them in a school that is safe and disciplined, where they can learn.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Congress has the power to mandate a school choice program for Washington because it controls purse strings for the city's government, including funding for its schools. Elsewhere, local communities or states enact or reject such programs. The Clinton administration opposes the Washington, D.C., legislation, and the president has said he will veto it.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: We pick up the debate now with two key players: House Majority Leader Richard Armey from Texas is the chief sponsor of the District of Columbia voucher legislation and Eleanor Holmes Norton is the Democratic delegate to the House from Washington, D.C. Thank you both for being with us.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Congressman Armey, why is this legislation necessary, in your view?
Rep. Armey: "...you help the children wherever you find them, and I'm finding them here in D.C."
REP. RICHARD ARMEY, House Majority Leader: Well, we have a great many distressed households and students in Washington, D.C. Washington, D.C. is a federal city. We feel a special responsibility for the city and for the people of Washington, D.C. in the House of Representatives. And, quite frankly, we've already seen a proven population of some 8,000 people that are looking for this opportunity for their children, and we can do this for these children. My point of view is that you help the children wherever you find them, and I'm finding them here in D.C.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: And Delegate Norton, a distressed population of students that would be helped by this?
DEL. ELEANOR HOLMES NORTON, (D) District of Columbia: The population of students that look like students in schools in every big city in the United States, and yes, they certainly do need help, and I wish that the House would give them some help. For example, the District of Columbia will become perhaps the first big city jurisdiction to abolish social promotion in the United States. It begins with a summer program this year, so that instead of simply promoting kids, you remediate them and then you take kids who have witnesses, so that you don't even have to remediate them. We needed $10 million for that. We went begging, found $5 million thanks to President Clinton. The House didn't come forward with that money, but it wants to give $7 million to 2,000 students. This would help 20,000 students. That is our beef with the House bill. It doesn't go where the kids are. Our kids are in the public schools. They are under total renovation. They need the help of the House not to have money put outside the schools into religious schools.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Congressman Armey, how would the program work, briefly?
REP. RICHARD ARMEY: Well, first of all, we've been advocating this program for D.C. schools for some years now, and certainly it predates this current effort to abolish social promotion, which I applaud, and I want to help the public schools in every way possible, but the way it works is very simple. For 2,000 families they have a scholarship of $3200 where the mom and dad can take their child to the school of their choice. The children that would receive these scholarships come from the lowest income families in Washington, D.C., and they are chosen by a process of random selection. There's an additional allocation of funds that give us an opportunity for an additional 2,000 children to have funds available for tutoring or other forms of assistance. We want to make this as broadly helpful, and we certainly would like to see this as something that is done in conjunction with other efforts to remediate the schools so that they can perform on behalf of the children, and we don't have to take the children's summer away from them to remediate the failure of the schools in the previous nine months.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Delegate Norton, yes, go ahead.
A political charade?
DEL. ELEANOR HOLMES NORTON: The problem is, of course, that everybody knows that we are engaged in a charade. The president has promised that he will veto the bill, has long had a position against the vouchers because the whole point here is to begin a drain of the federal treasury. You give religious schools in D.C. some money, you know that religious schools across the country will say me too. The second reason that this cannot happen and why I would like to see the Majority Leader work with me for something that can happen is that in the two states which in fact now are using vouchers at precisely the time in this bill the courts in Ohio and Wisconsin have already found them to be found unconstitutional, they're unconstitutional because in point of fact there is entanglement with religion, and in our country for over 200 years, there can be no entanglement of church and state if, in fact, churches were to accept this money, if religious schools were to accept this money, they must come with strings attached. In our country, our democracy, we do not give out taxpayers' money with no strings attached.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Congressman Armey, what about the constitutionality of the federal moneys being provided for parents that could use them for parochial schools, what was your thinking about that?
REP. RICHARD ARMEY: Well, first of all, let me just say this: For us to say we shouldn't try for the children because the president says no, he'll veto the bill is not an acceptable thing. When the Democrat governor of Arkansas stood in the school door and said the kids can't come here, we didn't stop trying for the kids. When the Democrat governor of Alabama stood in the university doors and said the young people can't come here, we didn't stop trying for the kids. And when this Democrat president stands in the face of these children and says, now, not you, we're not going to stop for them. Now the fact of the matter is we give a scholarship to the family. The family takes their scholarship and their child to the school of their choice. There is not entanglement. It has been clearly scrubbed by constitutional scholars, and there will not be a problem in that regard. That argument is, in fact, what the sham is in this whole discussion.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Delegate Norton, why is this different from say pell grants, which are federal grants given to college students and they use them at Notre Dame and other religious schools?
Del. Norton: "Look, the final word....lies with the courts because a basic constitutional issue is raised here, and the courts have already spoken."
DEL. ELEANOR HOLMES NORTON: The difference is between colleges and secondary and elementary schools. The courts have found the difference is that secondary and elementary schools are all full of their religious trappings, which is why they exist. We are glad that they exist. The fact that there are Catholic schools, for example, in the district is why we've been able to keep some middle income parents in the district. But when you get to college, those trappings, of course, fall away, and that's why pell grants, in fact, can be given. Look, the final word on this does not lie with the Majority Leader. It lies with the courts because a basic constitutional issue is raised here, and the courts have already spoken. These things will be appealed, but it's been handed down already, so that if he really is serious about helping D.C. kids this year, we've got to propose the fact that the president is going to veto, we've got to face the fact that the constitutional challenges have been successful, and we've got to work together if the point is to help the kids.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Congressman Armey, on that point Sec. Riley said that politics really drive this issue, not education. What's your response to that?
REP. RICHARD ARMEY: Personally, I think that is a terribly unfair thing to say. I tell you, I've worked with these children. I have nine children that I've raised money for to put them on scholarship. I've worked for the Washington Scholarship Fund. I've met the parents. I've met the children. And it is, in fact, not politics. This is about these children. And we need to understand that. And the fact of the matter is that D.C. school kids today, they have to pass all kinds of trappings of security. There's all kinds of--they see now water buckets, the leaking roofs, the inadequate texts and so forth. And for somebody to suggest that if their parents take a scholarship and voluntarily put them in a school where they may see a crucifix on the wall it'll hurt their little minds, I just don't think that's appropriate understanding. Furthermore, what good does it do to give a pell grant to a child who hasn't been properly prepared to go to school while you pass up the opportunity to do exactly the same thing to give that child is chance to really learn when he's in the third grade? I don't follow the logic of that either. This is exactly the same as a pell grant, except we're catching the third grader at a time when he's really got a chance to prepare themselves to be able to succeed in college.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Delegate Norton, the polls are showing, a Gallup Poll last year showed a majority of people in America favor this kind of school choice or some kind of school choice. Where do you think this issue is going in the years ahead? Is it gaining momentum?
DEL. ELEANOR HOLMES NORTON: Your words are very important because people do favor school choice, even though some in my own district, for example, oppose charter schools. I worked with the speaker and the majority to pass a D.C. charter school bill last year in 1996, and what has happened? We have charter schools blossoming all over the District of Columbia to give publicly accountable charter schools where there are no entanglements with religion, and where you do have a choice other than the public school system. I am no apologist for D.C. public schools or for any of the rest of these public schools that are not educating our children. And I say to the Majority Leader it's not all politics. It's a lot of sincerity here because the Majority Leader has raised private money for kids in my district, and so has the Speaker of the House. Now I say to them that there is a way to get the money to these kids right away, and the way to do it is to join hands with me and go into my district and let's raise the money for these 7500 kids, so that they will not be disappointed either by the courts or by a veto. Let's do private schools with private money.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: And, Congressman Armey, how do you answer that question about where this issue is going in the short time we have left?
Rep. Armey: "The kids and their parents are on my side of this issue...."
REP. RICHARD ARMEY: Well, let me just say again, we are introducing 7 million dollars' worth of new money to the process. That's 4,000 new opportunities for the children of D.C. As far as I'm concerned, these kids come first, and I'll save 'em or help 'em where I can find them. And I can tell you one thing, it doesn't matter. The kids and their parents are on my side of this issue, and the president's got a choice when he gets this bill. You can either sign the bill for the children, or veto the bill for the unions, Mr. President. It's your choice.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Thank you both very much for being with us