the battle over school choice

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the case against vouchers
rudy crew

Crew is the executive director of the University of Washington's new Institute for K-12 Leadership. He was chancellor of New York Public Schools for four years, one of the longest tenures of any recent chancellor. While leading the district of 1.1 million students, Crew ended the automatic promotion of failing students, changed the practice of giving lifelong job protection to principals, and persuaded the state Legislature to give the chancellor more say over the appointment of local superintendents. In news accounts, Crew blamed Mayor Rudolph Giuliani for his departure. The two had several disputes, including over a plan favored by the mayor to give public school students taxpayer-funded vouchers to use at private schools.

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You were quoted in the New York Times as saying that, as a black man in all good conscience, you could not support even a pilot voucher program. Why is that?

In my 49 years, when I've seen people talk about ideas for public education--and particularly of late--they're really talking about a redistribution of opportunities. They're talking about a redistribution of wealth. I understand that the whole notion of choice has a very, very important and valuable competitive nature. I believe in that nature. I believe in that opportunity. But I also know that there are schools that already are trying to fight for just getting their roof fixed. They're trying to make sure that they have technology available for some kids, not even for everybody yet, that they have an opportunity to have adequate textbooks and labs for science experiments to be done, on exams that they now have to take.

So to start talking about removing dollars from the base that would otherwise go to support that kind of an instructional high quality program is to walk away from children who are in these schools. And I think that government and public service in general can't walk away from poor, black, Latino . . . poor children in general. . . . If that school is broken, then fix it. We have enough examples on the ground in this country of poor schools, of failing schools, that got turned around with good leadership, good instruction, wonderful teachers, a committed community, people who put the necessary and right emphasis on instruction.

. . . If you really want to fix the school, you can fix the school. You can fix it very quickly. But I argue that you can also just as easily walk away from it. Now we're going to allow your kids to get out of it. Well, what about the kids who can't find a seat in that other school that presumably is a better school--what about them? Where do they go? What labs do they have? What preparation do their teachers have? What support will their leaders have? What kind of materials and supplies and laboratory equipment and so forth will the kids in that school have? What are you going to do? Are you going to just simply say, "Well, we've gotten a third of your kids out of here, and now the two-thirds of you that are remaining, basically don't need this?" That's absurd. Not only is it absurd, it's insidious. . . .

barry w. lynn

Lynn is executive director of Americans United for Separation of Church and State and a long-time activist in the civil liberties field and church-state issues. From 1984 until 1991, he was legislative counsel in the Washington national office of the American Civil Liberties Union. He is an ordained minister in the United Church of Christ who received his theology degree from Boston University School of Theology.

read his interview

This is a tremendously hot political issue all over the country. A lot of people seem to think that vouchers are some kind of Viagra for public school reform. But, if you look at the data, it's really snake oil. It's not doing the job that it was designed to do.

In Cleveland, it's obvious that most the vast majority of the kids participating in the voucher system there--and there are about 4000 of them--most are black and most are going to Catholic schools. What's the problem there with that?

About 96% of the students who get some benefit from the Ohio voucher program are going to religious schools, and whenever you take funding from the general treasury of the state and divert it into the treasuries of private religious schools, you've helped to promote religion. You've helped to make it more likely for parents to send their children to that religious school. That kind of government support for religion violates the constitution of most states and also the Constitution of the United States.

What part of our constitution deals with this issue of separation of church and state and why is it so important in this country?

The First Amendment to the Constitution reads that Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion or prohibiting the free exercise thereof. But what that has been held to mean is that government cannot get in the business of promoting religion, generally, or specific religions. And [if] this kind of aid, which really is direct aid when it comes from the taxpayer's own pockets, ends up in a school of a religious nature, it is government support for religious education. All you have to do is take a look at those schools in Cleveland that are getting most of this money. They are religious from the time the kids walk in the school in the morning until the time that the school bell rings in the afternoon. That's fine as long as it's paid for voluntarily. And doesn't cost the taxpayers over 11 million dollars a year. . . .

We're not against religious organizations, be they Catholic, Nation of Islam, Protestant, evangelical, [having a right] to set up their own schools. But having established that constitutional right, they have no right to expect people of the other faiths of this country, or the millions of Americans who don't believe in any religion at all, to be forced to fund those religious schools. This is not a fight about whether [these] schools are good, whether they do a good job. This is simply a question of whether government can decide to promote religion. With tax dollars.

. . .

One of the arguments of the other side [of] this issue is that, if they give the check, the voucher check, to the parent and not to the religious school, then that means federal taxpayers' money, public money, is not being used [to fund the] school. What do you think of that idea?

There is this argument that the parents somehow are a wall against this becoming direct aid. When you give a voucher to parents and say, "Now, you can only use this for education," the parent then takes the voucher to a school. The school then takes it to the state treasury and says . . . "Give me the money." That's a direct payment out of the taxpayer's pocket into the private schools' treasury that the Constitution doesn't tolerate. The parents are just a pipeline. It doesn't affect the ultimate constitutional issue. . . .

What's the danger with breaching this wall in this country between church and state?

A lot of people seem to think that vouchers are some kind of Viagra for public school reform. But, if you look at the data, it's really snake oil. It's not doing the job that it was designed to do. I think the danger of losing separation of church and state means that we're going to find fights going on for government favor. Fights among religious groups, as they all say, "No, give me a bigger portion of the pie." The Presbyterians say, "We want this much." The Catholics say, "No, we want a little more." Somebody else comes in and says, "We want our ten percent." We see that in other countries. It's not a pretty sight and I don't think we should have it in the United States. . . . .

I'll take this case of a black mother who says, "Look, my daughter was in a very unsafe school." Not only was the education bad, in her view, but it was dangerous. So this voucher program in Cleveland is a lifesaver for [her] daughter. [She] can send her across town to a Catholic school. Maybe the education is not outstanding, but it's all right. But the important thing is that school is safe. It's orderly. [Her] kid's going to be OK. What do you tell a parent like that?

...Some individuals certainly benefit from a voucher program. But when you look at the 11 million dollars, for example, spent each year in Ohio, if you spent the same amount of money on after school tutoring programs, mentoring programs, you'd reach far more students and keep those students safe during what even the FBI calls the three most dangerous hours in a young person's life, between 3 and 6:00 in the afternoon. We know what works. We have programs that we don't fund, that take at-risk young people in inner city schools and improve the education that they get, improve their test scores. We know how to make the schools safer. We can do it for a fraction of the cost of diverting all this money to private schools. We just don't choose to do it. One of the most annoying things about this entire argument is that people say, "Look, we have a new plan called vouchers," but they won't fund the old plans that we know to work. The ones that do make a difference in the lives, not just of a handful of young people, but of whole school-aged populations....

Many of the schools that get voucher assistance in place like Cleveland can pick and choose students. They tend to pick students who are more favorably disposed to their religious background. They aren't picking them on a random basis. Any minor disciplinary infraction generally sends the student out of the private school back into the public school system. So this is really a con game. This is not helping America's inner city schools. The one thing that would help is if we put our money where our hearts ought to be and make sure that we have a quality education for every young person in this country. Vouchers are never going to do it and I don't think most of its proponents really care. What they want is the money for middle class parents to send their kids to these elitist private schools. And have the taxpayers support it....

william galston

Galston is a professor and director of the Institute for Philosophy and Public Policy at the University of Maryland School of Public Affairs. He served as the Deputy Assistant to the President for Domestic Policy in the Clinton Adminstration and is serving as a senior advisor to Vice President Al Gore during his 2000 campaign for the Presidency.

read his interview

I don't know of very many people who think of vouchers as the solution to the problem of education in our cities. We have to keep our eye on the ball. More than 90% of all of our school age kids go to public schools. And that ratio of 9 to 1 is likely to prevail for the indefinite future. So if we don't fix the public schools, then all of our other efforts are going to be futile or, at best, marginal. In addition there is a very, very substantial academic debate. And I do not pretend to be an academic expert on this subject, but there is a very substantial academic debate as to the efficacy of the early voucher programs that have been implemented. It is possible to look at the figures in a way that suggests significant progress. It is also possible to look at the figures in a way that suggests minimal progress or that attributes the progress that has been made to factors other than choice. For example, smaller class size....

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