November 27, 1998
|Betty Ann Bowser takes a look at school vouchers in Texas, followed by a discussion on this controversial topic led by Phil Ponce.|
| BETTY ANN BOWSER: At 7 o'clock each weekday morning Lydia Chandler
takes her three boys to school. What's different this year, though, is
that Chandler is taking her kids to a private school that costs $1500
per child, and she's not having to pay a penny for tuition.
LYDIA CHANDLER: I've always wanted my children to go to private school but my funds were limited, so I had no choice but to put them in public.
BETTY ANN BOWSER: Chandler can put the kids in private school because of a voucher program offered to every child in the low-performing Edgewood Public School District where she lives in San Antonio, Texas.
TEACHER: Latitude lines, which ones are they? Yvette.
BETTY ANN BOWSER: It's the first time a private organization has offered millions of dollars in vouchers to an entire school district. Money for the project is coming from the Children's Educational Opportunity Foundation, also called CEO. Forty-five million of the fifty million dollar program is being bankrolled by a conservative San Antonio philanthropist named Dr. James Leininger, who's part of a growing national movement supporting school choice through vouchers.
DR. JAMES LEININGER, Children's Educational Opportunity: My desire, and the only reason that I'm involved with this is that every student in America would have the same educational opportunity as my children. I can afford to send my children to a private school, if I think that's what's best - any place they need to go. And I think that every child in America ought to have that same opportunity, not just be trapped into one school because they're poor.
BETTY ANN BOWSER: Nationwide, 29 cities, other than San Antonio, have privately funded voucher programs representing another $45 million investment. In 13 of those cities, CEO has matching fund programs. In Edgewood, 756 students from the district got CEO vouchers this fall. All they had to do to qualify was to be poor enough to also qualify for the federal school lunch program. That means if there was enough money to go around, 93 percent of the children in the mostly Hispanic Edgewood District would be eligible. But for every student who took a CEO scholarship the Edgewood School District lost about $5700 in state and federal money it gets to educate each child. So this year alone Edgewood lost more than $4 million, which is one of the reasons Secretary of Education Richard Riley opposes vouchers. He spoke recently to the National Press Club.
RICHARD RILEY, Secretary of Education: I think that it's a very bad policy that automatically pulls funds away from the support and the resources away from public schools, where 90 percent of our children are in school. It's bad for parochial and private schools, because it makes them less parochial and less private.
SPOKESPERSON: In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
BETTY ANN BOWSER: But parochial school officials in San Antonio aren't complaining. St. John Berchman's Elementary School, a Catholic parochial school, got 129 of the 656 CEO scholarship children, more than any parochial or private school in San Antonio. Since CEO pays $3600 for each student who goes here, which is more than the cost of tuition, the school has a windfall. The day we visited Principal Deborah Goering got her first CEO check for $47,000. $27,000 of it is gravy. And over the next school year she will get over $200,000 more. So already, she is on a mental spending spree.
DEBORAH GOERING, Principal, St. John Berchman Elementary: Some of it will be used for capital improvements. Some of it will be used to - you know - increase teachers' salaries. We want to put in - like the library needs more books - we want to try and put 1,000 new titles in. We're going to get computers in the classrooms.
BETTY ANN BOWSER: Edgewood School officials are upset about the students they're losing to schools like St. John Berchman's. And they complain the best and brightest are the ones who are leaving. Dolores Munoz is superintendent of Edgewood.
DOLORES MUNOZ, Edgewood School Superintendent: Right now, I don't have the profile of every child, but I guarantee you that at least 80 percent will be the high-achieving students. They will be. The private schools are having the choice of the best students around, because they have a criteria, and not every child is taken into consideration, and their doors are open for every child; no, they're not open for every child.
BETTY ANN BOWSER: CEO's Robert Aguirre disagrees.
ROBERT AGUIRRE, Director, Children's Educational Opportunity: From all the grades we have seen of the kids so far, if these children that we have seen so far represent the best that Edgewood has to offer, we're in a lot worse shape than we think we are, because these are not high-achieving students in an academic sense.
BETTY ANN BOWSER: Edgewood officials also argue they are at an unfair disadvantage because Texas does not regulate private schools. Meanwhile, like all public schools, Edgewood is required by law to offer expensive programs like bilingual and special education. Nearly 40 percent of Edgewood's students are enrolled in special language and learning programs. And special education teacher Stella Higginbotham says no private school in Edgewood can offer the kind of program her school does.
STELLA HIGGINBOTHAM, Special Education Teacher: The voucher program does not provide for children with learning disabilities, with special needs. Edgewood does a very good job of providing for kids with special needs. I don't think that in a public - in a private school that you could find a class this size to help children with special needs.
BETTY ANN BOWSER: The loss of students in Edgewood came at a time when the district was finally getting state money it thought it deserved. In 1991, Edgewood won a lawsuit that forced the state to equalize public school funding, giving about the same amount of money to both poor and wealthy districts. Since then, Edgewood has been playing catch-up and, in fact, has increased student performance across the board. State Board of Education member Joe Bernal says that's why targeting Edgewood was unfair.
JOE BERNAL, Texas State Board of Education: It's not about helping children; it's about using the Edgewood School District as an experiment. And I personally resent it. The goal is to do a showplace in Edgewood and see, look what we did in Edgewood. We took all these kids out of this poor, poor school district and gave them this fantastic education in private schools, and look at the way they're advancing academically. That's a lot of baloney.
BETTY ANN BOWSER: Philanthropist Leininger says CEO picked Edgewood because it was the poorest district in San Antonio and because he hoped if the program was successful, it would strengthen his argument that public money should be used for vouchers. DR.
JAMES LEININGER: The private sector couldn't possibly finance, you know, a scholarship for every low-income child in America. And there's, what, over $120 billion a year of public money -- of our tax dollars being spent on schools. So it only makes sense that at some point the government has got to do the right thing for those poor children and allow them to go to any school they want to go to.
BETTY ANN BOWSER: Both the American Federation of Teachers and the National Education Association oppose public money being spent on vouchers. Bob Chase is president of the NEA.
BOB CHASE, President, National Education Association: We could eventually end up with schools that cater to all different segments of society. We could have a school that caters to the Hispanic segment of society or African-American segment of society, "gifted and talented," a white school, go down the list. To get that kind of fragmentation in a diverse society such as ours is from my perspective in the long-term suicidal.
BETTY ANN BOWSER: Al Kaufman, of the Mexican-American Legal Defense Fund, agrees and says the pro-voucher movement has other priorities.
AL KAUFMAN, Mexican American Legal Defense Fund: I don't think it's a matter to destroy public schools as much as to push their own agendas, their political agendas, religious agendas, and other agendas, partisan at times agendas by schools that are paid for by the public. And this is an overall, fairly well organized effort around the country to do just that, and that's I think what it's all about. And I can understand it. They're pushing their agenda. They could like to show that hundreds of kids would leave a public school if given an opportunity and that hundreds of them would go and be able to get a good religious education at state expense.
TEACHER: What are some ways that Jesus was influenced by His Jewish heritage?
BETTY ANN BOWSER: In fact, most of the Edgewood voucher students went to parochial schools because in San Antonio there are few private schools. And Alan Parker, who heads the Texas Justice Foundation, which is funded in part by Dr. Leininger, says parents have a right to send their kids wherever they want.
ALAN PARKER, Texas Justice Foundation: Perhaps there are some people who have a gut reaction, I don't want my tax money going to religious schools. I can sympathize with that, but they need to think of it as going to education like the GI Bill, and the American right is to choose what's best for yourself, and the government is neutral. If they still have a feeling that no matter what, they don't want their money going there, I think there's a bit of religious bigotry there.
SPOKESPERSON: I pledge allegiance to the flag -
BETTY ANN BOWSER: One of the big unanswered questions is whether the voucher students will perform better in private school than they did in public school. Studies that have been done on voucher programs in other parts of the country have produced conflicting results. That's why researchers say they're excited about Edgewood, because for the first time it will give them a chance to study the impact on an entire school district.
JIM LEHRER: Phil Ponce takes it from there.
PHIL PONCE: Private scholarship programs like the one we just saw in San Antonio are now available in 31 states. Only two experimental voucher programs, in Cleveland and Milwaukee, use state funds to pay a student's way at a private school. Earlier this month, supporters of vouchers were encouraged when the United States Supreme Court decided not to take up a challenge to the Milwaukee program; it allows taxpayer-funded vouchers to be used at religious schools. We get two perspectives on the success and prospects of voucher programs. Bruce Fuller is a professor of public policy and education at the University of California at Berkeley; Paul Peterson is a professor of government at Harvard University's John F. Kennedy School of Government and director of the program on educational policy and governance. Gentlemen, welcome. Professor Peterson, are publicly-funded vouchers for private schools a good thing?
PAUL PETERSON, Harvard University: Well, in New York City, we just did a study which shows that kids who get the vouchers are learning more both in reading and math. If they keep up at the same pace they are in fourth and fifth grade, by the time they finish high school, these minority children will be performing at the same levels that whites are today. So I'd say this shows some promise that we can get educational opportunity more equal than it's been.
PHIL PONCE: Professor Fuller, is that evidence persuasive to you for the use of - for the use of vouchers?
BRUCE FULLER: Well, Phil, I think the gains in New York are fairly miniscule, especially in the context of more serious school reforms. And I think the voucher movement to a large extent is distracting us from more serious reforms, as found in Texas, Chicago, Tennessee. So I do think Mr. Peterson is doing a service to the country in terms of trying to study these experiments, but I think it's distracting us from more serious efforts at statewide reforms, as well as public school choice options like charter schools.
PHIL PONCE: Professor Fuller, staying with you for a minute, let's take up some of the arguments that were raised in the piece that we just saw out of San Antonio, and that is number one, that vouchers are something like the GI bill, that it gives poor kids the chance to have options that rich kids have.
BRUCE FULLER: Well, we certainly have a warm and fuzzy feeling, Phil, about the GI bill, but, remember, that the United States has one of the most stratified unequal higher education systems in the world. We have a few, very lucky, mainly wealthy kids going to Harvard, Yale, Stanford, and then a large range of middle class kids who go to lower quality institutions. I think we also have to look at other sectors that have been injected with market principles. The whole HMO debacle I think shows us that if we instill health care with market competition, we may lower prices, but we also may disastrously lower quality. The other example is preschool and in child care. Most federal funding now funds child care through vouchers. I think every parent of a young child knows that the system is a total mess, and it's beset with great inequalities and very uneven quality. So I think we have to look at these other, more contemporary sectors to really understand the high risks in putting vouchers into the public schools.
PHIL PONCE: How about that, Professor Peterson, do vouchers inject a free-market aspect that could be bad for public education?
PAUL PETERSON: Well, I think if you took choice out of higher education, you'd have a rebellion of epical proportions in the United States today. College kids want their choice of college. And we have Pell Grants today, and we had the GI bill in place for many years, which gave people a chance to go to the college they wanted to, whether it was Catholic or Jewish or whatever, and this same principle is every bit as constitutional at a lower level as at a higher level. We now have the Supreme Court saying, yes, you can go forward with vouchers to go to private schools, Catholic schools, Lutheran schools, whatever, if that's what you want. The state is going to be neutral between going to public schools and private schools. And I think that's really healthy. In the medical sector we've had tremendous advances in the last 25 years, tremendous advances. In education we've made no advances. In fact, we've been going backwards. That's the problem. In elementary and secondary education today we are falling behind in terms of the number of people graduating from high school. We have to do something to bring public schools up to the standard that we have in the rest of society, and choice may be the mechanism for doing so.
PHIL PONCE: Professor Peterson, how do you respond to the concern that vouchers wind up skimming the best - "the best public school students" away, out of the public school system?
PAUL PETERSON: We were very concerned about that in New York City, and we tested all the students who came into the voucher program, and they were scoring at the 25th percentile. The average in the United States is 50th percentile. So these students are really way below average. If your kid is doing well in school, why would you take them out? It's the parents whose kids are having a problem in school who want to place them elsewhere.
PHIL PONCE: Professor Fuller, concern about the best and brightest public school students leaving the public school system?
BRUCE FULLER: Certainly, Phil. I mean, we know very little about the kids left behind in mediocre, urban schools. I agree with Mr. Peterson that a lot of public schools are downright broken, and we need serious reform. But I think these images that all parents in America have their kids locked and chained to neighborhood schools is an old sort of image. One in five American parents now do not send their kids to neighborhood schools. They participate in public school, choice programs like magnet schools, career academies, charter schools. There are options, I think, that better balance the need for public accountability with the right of parents to exit their neighborhood school. Out her in California we have schools of scientology that are anxious to get vouchers. In Arizona, you have Mormon schools that are anxious to get vouchers. This sort of balkanization of society, which is already separating the rich from the poor in this country would only be furthered by vouchers, but by holding schools accountable and expanding choice in the public sector, we can advance choice while ensuring that these schools help build an integrated and unified society and not further separate us from one another.
PHIL PONCE: Professor Peterson, balkanization?
PAUL PETERSON: Well, Phil, Bruce is just exactly right. There is a lot of choice today in American education for kids from middle class, upper middle class families. If you're a wealthy person, you send your child to a private school, or you go to a rich suburb and have a fancy school. If you're a poor person and live in the central city you have no choice. It seems like it would be a good idea to give the same opportunities to poor children, minority children in our central cities that rich kids have. As for balkanization, our private schools are more racially integrated than the public schools. Kids going to private schools are more tolerant of others, more willing to volunteer, more willing to help others. There's a lot of evidence out here that it's good for society as a whole to have kids in private schools.
PHIL PONCE: Professor Peterson, how do you respond to the point that was made in the piece that for every kid that leaves a public school, that's fewer resources for that school because that school doesn't get the $5,000 or $7,500 that the state would have paid that public school for that person's education?
PAUL PETERSON: Actually, the public schools have more money per pupil than before, because what is happening in Wisconsin is about $5,000 is leaving with every child, but $3,000 is staying. There's fewer children, so actually the public schools have more money per child. There's no loss at all. All it is, is the money that's following the child. I've never understood this particular argument.
PHIL PONCE: Professor Fuller, who is pushing for vouchers right now?
BRUCE FULLER: Well, I think if you look across the political spectrum, we see two ends are more heavily backing vouchers. Affluent parents have long supported vouchers and tuition tax credits. This was the Reagan strategy in the 80s to really provide tax relief to affluent parents through tuition tax credits. And at the other end of the spectrum, Phil, low-income Latinos and blacks - most importantly - are increasingly supporting radical remedies like vouchers. I think that's simply because they - every day they see their kids walk out the door, going into schools that are unsafe and mediocre. There's no question we've got to sake up the urban system. But it's this broad band in the middle of middle class voters who still have deep faith in the best ideals of public schooling, the notion that public schools expose all kids to a common curriculum, the sense that public schools advance more equal opportunities.
PHIL PONCE: Professor Peterson, how much of an impulse do you sense for change from the middle class say?
BRUCE FULLER: Well, I think that we do need to try lots of different educational reforms to find out what works, and we need to take a much more experimental approach than we have in the past. And certainly one of the things that we want to do with vouchers is to try them out in more places and on a larger scale. We've only done it in Milwaukee and Cleveland insofar as government programs are involved. And we need to do more of them and on a larger scale in order to see whether one group or another is right here. It isn't that all the answers are on one side. It's that there are a lot of questions and very little experimentation in trying to find out. Pilot programs is the way to go for the time being, it seems to me.
PHIL PONCE: So, Professor Peterson, you want to see these - you want to see these private experiments basically expand into the public sector, you want to see more experiments as are taking place in Milwaukee and in Cleveland?
PAUL PETERSON: Yes, indeed, and Washington, DC would be an excellent place to do so if Congress would make Washington -- and the public schools in Washington desperately need to be improved - if we could give choice to the children of Washington, DC, on a large scale, that would be a fantastic laboratory to find out what works and what really happens when you introduce vouchers into urban central cities.
PHIL PONCE: And, Professor Fuller, your reaction to the prospect of the expansion of vouchers?
BRUCE FULLER: Well, I do agree with Mr. Peterson that we need to push the education establishment to experiment in more aggressive and inventive ways. But I think the experiment around charter schools, the experiment around career academies and magnet schools is simply more promising, because those schools have to come back to publicly-elected school boards and prove results and prove that they're having positive effects. Once we pass a voucher on to a parent, if that parent wants to go into a black nationalist school in Milwaukee or a Mormon school in rural Arizona, there are really no questions asked and taxpayers have no way to really assess whether those voucher schools are performing up to their claims, whereas in public school choice there's a constant line, a constant life-line to public school authorities, and if those charter schools are not performing, then we'll pull the plug.
PHIL PONCE: Gentlemen, I'm afraid that's all the time we have. And I thank you very much.
BRUCE FULLER: Thank you.
PAUL PETERSON: Thank you.