Student journalists from Children's PressLine analyse
the school choice debate, focusing on congressional races
in Florida, where more than 26,000 students have used public
money to attend private and parochial schools since 1999.
choice programs, also known as school voucher programs,
provide public funding for low-income students to obtain
scholarships to attend the school of their choosing -- be
it private, public or parochial.
This year, eight states -- Arizona, Florida, Iowa, Ohio,
Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, Utah, and Wisconsin -- enacted
new school choice programs or expanded existing programs;
today, a dozen states and the District of Columbia have
private school choice programs.
By 2007, the Heritage Foundation, a conservative research
group in favor of the programs, predicts as many as 150,000
students will be participating in publicly funded tuition
But the debate rages; it's not clear if private schools
provide a better education than public ones.
This summer the U.S. Department of Education determined
that public school students perform as well as or better
than comparable private school students in reading and math,
with one exception -- 8th grade reading, in which private
school students performed higher.
In July 2006, school vouchers proponents in Congress introduced
a federal bill that would extend the school choice program.
The America's Opportunity Scholarships for Kids Act would
allow any student in an underperforming public school to
apply for a funding to cover part of the cost of tuition
for a private school education.
The position of advocacy groups
on opposite sides of the issue
Many advocacy groups have a lot to say about the contentious
issue of school vouchers. While all of them seem to want
the best for the nation's youth -- and recognize that there
are problems with the current system -- they differ drastically
on their proposed methods of achieving this change.
For some advocates of the proposal, school vouchers go
beyond academics. They argue that vouchers give families
the choice of sending their children to the school that
best fits their needs. Furthermore, they suggest that the
competition between the public and private schools will
improve the overall quality of education.
The Alliance for School Choice, for example, suggests that
school choice will help to level the playing field between
the rich and poor: "we believe that the most effective
means of creating systemic and sustainable K-12 reform for
our educational system is by giving low-income parents the
same right to choose the best education for their children
that most Americans already enjoy."
Others maintain that vouchers deprive school districts
of money and dodge constitutional laws against funding religious
educational instruction. The National Parent Teacher Association
claims voucher programs take much-needed money out of public
schools and reduce public revenue without improving public
Parents' rights in education
Florida politicians are similarly polarized. Many Republicans
support school choice programs and advocate local control,
referring to the public education system as a "bureaucracy."
Jeff Miller, a Republican candidate running in Florida's
1st District, said, "School choice is about one issue:
Who should have the right to determine where a child goes
to school? The parents or the government?"
Ander Crenshaw, Republican candidate for Florida's 4th
District, agreed, arguing that "control of education
must be taken away from Washington bureaucrats and returned
to parents, teachers and local leaders. It just makes common
sense to put our children's education in the hands of those
who know their names and their needs."
For the millions of students nationwide who are stuck in
what the government has determined to be "failing schools",
local control and school choice seem like attractive options.
The Heritage Foundation suggests that school choice is
"clearly popular" among participating families,
citing the large number of applications received for a similar
fund in 1999.
The impact on public schools
But what happened to all those kids that applied for scholarships
but could not receive them? Were they given a chance to
"What do you think you'd feel like when somebody just
leaves you behind?," asked Charlie Stuart, the Democratic
candidate in Florida's 8th District.
"Somebody comes to you and you're in a group of 10
or 20 people and they say, 'We want to pick you for our
team, but not you over there.' That's what I think those
children will feel like when other kids say, 'We're gonna
go and get our voucher and leave you behind in a failing
environment.' That's not a message you want to send,"
Jan Schneider, who campaigned this year but ultimately
did not win a bid for Democratic candidacy in Florida's
13th District, had voiced concern for the millions of students
who currently find themselves in failing environments and
likely would remain there -- school transfer availability
is limited because successful public, private and parochial
schools can only take on so many new students.
Schneider was strongly opposed to school vouchers. She
argued, "Particularly with our public schools in such
dire financial straits, Congress should oppose all schemes
to siphon off resources."
Do vouchers really provide
Beyond the problem of availability, the National PTA stresses
that "privatizing" education --giving funding
to private schools that are not accountable to government
standards -- endangers the rights to equal education for
which Americans have fought for many years.
The PTA argues on their Web site that vouchers do not provide
choice because private schools could deny admission for
any reason, including "disabilities, limited English
proficiency, or low academic achievement."
Will vouchers will really provide the "choice"
that the Florida candidates claim? Or do vouchers provide
choice for some kids, but not for everyone?
Though their tactics differ, Florida's legislators agree
that education is important and that something needs to
be done about the millions of kids who are stuck in learning
environments that are not conducive to learning.