Skip to comments.D.C. voucher debate catches California's attention
Posted on 08/03/2003 10:16:06 AM PDT by John Jorsett
California educators have joined a political battle over a plan to let families use school vouchers, or taxpayer money for private tuition, to escape failing campuses.
But the fight isn't in California. It's nearly 3,000 miles away, in the public schools of Washington, D.C., where lawmakers are poised to create the nation's first federally funded voucher program. The program would set a precedent that supporters hope will open the door for vouchers all over the country.
What happens in the faraway district could affect whether a similar school voucher plan eventually makes it into the classrooms of California, where 70 percent of schools ---- including half of North County's campuses ---- were labeled as failing last month by the federal government.
And that's got Californians throwing themselves into the East Coast fight.
"There is a slippery slope, and what happens with federal money in one area could develop in California, too," said State Superintendent of Public Instruction Jack O'Connell, a staunch voucher opponent who has quietly stepped into the Washington fight by asking Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-California, in a letter, to vote against the voucher plan.
Feinstein, whom some California Democrats are trying to draft to run for governor in the Oct. 7 recall election, announced in the Washington Post last week that she would support the district's voucher plan, which is being pushed by Mayor Anthony Williams and President Bush.
"I am inclined to support Williams' effort to experiment with this program," Feinstein wrote in an opinion piece that shocked some members of her generally anti-voucher party. "I believe that education is a local issue and that if the mayor wants this program, it should be given the chance to work."
The $15 million plan, which is scheduled to come before Feinstein's Senate committee this fall, would give low-income families up to $7,500 from the federal tax rolls each year to pay for private school tuition. Two states ---- Florida and Colorado ---- hand out such scholarships, known as vouchers, under similar plans. Milwaukee and Cleveland also offer vouchers. California voters shot down two such proposed statewide voucher programs in 1993 and 2000.
But unlike most public education systems, Washington schools are paid for with federal money, and school-choice supporters say a voucher system there could pave the way for federally funded programs in other states.
"Throughout the nation we have a number of parents who believe in the basic freedom to allow a parent to choose a school that gets the job done for their child," said Michael Musante, a spokesman for the Center for Education Reform, a national advocacy group for school choice. "If D.C. becomes an example of how vouchers can make that happen, then yes, I think we'll see the idea coming up again in California and in other states."
How vouchers work
The basic idea behind voucher plans is to create competition for public schools, especially those with low test scores. By giving parents the choice to leave low-scoring schools ---- and take thousands of tax dollars with them ---- supporters say vouchers force failing public schools to improve.
Opponents say vouchers suck tax dollars from public schools and violate church-state separation laws. The Washington program would pay for tuition at some religious schools, and the Catholic Church diocese there supports the voucher bill.
Both voucher lovers and haters in California perked up their ears this month when reports showed that a staggering 7 out of 10 public schools in the state failed to meet tough new test-score goals imposed by Bush's recent federal education measure, the "No Child Left Behind" law. More than 5 out of 10 schools in North County, including some that have won national awards for excellence, were labeled failing under the law.
Opponents of the federal law say the president ---- a school-choice supporter ---- is setting schools up to fail by imposing rules that are almost impossible for even high-scoring schools to meet. Labelling schools as failing, opponents said, is the first step in Bush's march to create voucher plans all over the country.
"I believe that is absolutely the purpose of the law," said California Teachers Association President Barbara Kerr, whose union represents most of the state's teachers. "It has more to do with letting private schools in on public money than giving parents a choice."
President pushes choice
Bush, who introduced the D.C. voucher plan in a speech July 1, said the No Child Left Behind law was indeed intended to bring on school-choice reform for campuses that can't get even a small percentage of students from all walks of life to score at or above grade level on math and English tests.
The law already sanctions repeatedly low-scoring schools by forcing them to let students transfer to higher-scoring public schools. It also allows investigations and government takeovers in schools where students continue to fail state tests. A handful of North County schools were required to allow transfers last year, and dozens more could be in for government sanctions this fall if they don't improve their scores.
"Look, what we're trying to do is to give parents more options," Bush said while announcing the bill at Washington charter school July 1.
"Step one was to measure; step two was to post the results so everybody knows. They can compare school to school. Step three is to say, in any accountability system, there has to be consequences," said Bush, according to a White House transcript of the speech. "And the consequences when it comes to education for failure is the parent says, 'I've had it, I'm going to a different option for my particular child.'"
Powerful union weighs in
When it comes to California politics, the high-powered teachers association ---- which helped get Gov. Gray Davis elected and has historically supported Feinstein, too ---- said it hopes the senator will change her tune, especially if she plans to run for governor.
"She has always supported public schools. ... She knows very well that in this state we've defeated vouchers, and that the people of California don't believe in vouchers," Kerr said of Feinstein. "I think what she was trying to do is say cities and states should be able to decide what they want in terms of education. The question is, at what cost?"
Feinstein's press office said the opinion piece, which was printed in Tuesday's Washington Post, spoke for itself, and the office and did not return calls about whether Feinstein's support of the program would waver or if she would support voucher programs in California.
Feinstein, who has opposed other voucher programs in her three decades as a politician, repeated in the article that education decisions should be left to local governments.
"I have never before supported a voucher program," she wrote.
"I have advocated strongly for our public schools, because I believe they are the cornerstone of our education system," the op-editorial said. "But as a former mayor, I also believe that local leaders should have the opportunity to experiment with programs they believe are right for their area."
O'Connell said he often supports Feinstein but hopes the D.C. voucher plan fails.
"I have utmost respect for Senator Feinstein ... but our money, taxpayer money, should be spent on quality public education, not private schools," he said. "We in California should be watching all state and federal initiatives, and not back programs that undermine public schools."
Maybe I was too wrapped up in other matters, but I sure don't remember that hitting the news in a big way. 70 percent? That's unbelievable.
Education money should be spent on quality education."We in California should be watching all state and federal initiatives, and not back programs that undermine public schools"
The only issue is whether the government shall continue to prejudge the issue of the quality of the schools as the quote above does, or whether the adults most interested in the welfare of the children--parents--shall decide the issue of whether a given government school is superior or inferior to all private ones for their individual children.
Most arguments against vouchers seem to begin with the assumption that if their parents had a realistic choice children would switch to private schools in droves, and to project destruction rather than change of management of the existing government schools if those "quality public schools" are subjected to competition.
If "we" care more about the government school than we do about our own children's futures.