Did the Supreme Court make the right decision in upholding school vouchers?
Unfortunately, as is often the case in the educational reform policy arena, there is a serious disconnect between the issues which need to be dealt with and the solutions put forth. To that point, the ruling by the Supreme Court on the Cleveland vouchers program is very disappointing and could prove to be quite damaging to America’s public and private education system in years to come. Too many public officials and policy gurus advance vouchers as the “silver bullet” to improve America’s public schools, but in reality, vouchers may hurt both public and private schools.
To many, the idea of vouchers may sound good initially but is quickly deflated when carefully analyzed. Every state, given the choice of vouchers on state ballot initiatives, has overwhelmingly voted it down. Consider the reality that approximately 46 million students are currently enrolled in America’s public elementary and secondary schools. Private and parochial schools accommodate about 6 million students. A simple mathematical exercise will immediately point out that the numbers don’t work! In effect, a voucher system, regardless of the amount of money provided, can only accommodate a minimal number of public school students. To think of vouchers as a credible solution to the problems of public education is to disregard most of America’s students. In Cleveland it proves false by the fact that the majority of students receiving vouchers were already attending private institutions, with 96% of those institutions being religious schools.
To be clear, opposition to vouchers does not demean the outstanding hard work and accomplishments that are evident in our nation’s private and parochial schools. Rather, this is an issue of fairness, equity and the reality that any diversion of public funds will negatively affect the majority of public school students who are left behind.
States are required to provide a free and public education for each child. The operative words here are free, public and required, and the mandate is a commitment to access and equity in elementary and secondary education. Most private and parochial schools use various tests and/or admissions procedures in selecting students, which, if continued under a publicly funded vouchers system, would constitute an unfair and unjust situation. Public schools accept all children, regardless of academic readiness, race, socio-economic status, limited English proficiency or special education needs. Therein lies the power of the public system of education – it is truly public!
Over the years, the public education system in this country has fought some long, hard battles to ensure educational equity for student populations often ignored and discriminated against. Are private and parochial schools ready to make the same commitment to educating all students? Are they prepared to be held accountable for the use of public voucher dollars? A voucher system utilizing public funds should never be allowed to discriminate against special needs students.
And what impact will vouchers have on the mission of private and parochial schools? Most likely, the initial reaction of private and parochial schools to vouchers would be positive: more students and more fiscal resources. But, it can be predicted that over time, as more public dollars are spent to support voucher students, there will be increased pressure for greater public scrutiny and accountability for these public expenditures. Private and parochial schools are an important part of the heritage and future of American education. Slowly but surely, vouchers will force these schools to become less private and less parochial-—the very reason for their existence.
Proponents of vouchers say that public schools will become more competitive and more accountable operating within a voucher system that allows students the option to leave. The reality is that for every public school student that leaves, districts lose significant dollars that are never replaced. It seems illogical to suggest that school districts, especially urban districts already plagued with significant fiscal problems, will improve as public education funds are removed.
If our national commitment is to educate all children to high standards, then our school reform efforts must include strategies and initiatives that are comprehensive, built upon solid research and designed to serve all the students. Recent reform efforts that show great promise for all students include: establishing high academic standards; aligning curriculum and instruction with established standards and assessments; improving the preparation, induction and career opportunities for school leaders and teachers along with salary increases; ensuring high quality pre-school and early childhood education; increasing parental involvement; implementing rigorous tests to monitor student progress; holding schools accountable (when supported with the necessary resources) for improved student achievement; determining consequences for both successful and failing schools; and financing the poorer school districts in a more equitable manner.
In summary, vouchers lead us away from the basic American tradition of a free, quality public education for every student and undermine the kind of comprehensive, systemic school reform that is working in many parts of the country right now. No one wants to deny students and parents the right to a better school system, but silver bullet solutions for small groups of students is not reform. I remind those who advocate vouchers that the American dream of equity and excellence in education is intended for all students and not the select few that a misguided public policy of school vouchers will serve.
Gerald N. Tirozzi, Ph.D., is executive director of the National Association of Secondary School Principals (NASSP) in Virginia. Dr. Tirozzi was appointed by President Clinton as Assistant Secretary of Elementary and Secondary Education, and served in that capacity from 1996 to 1999 at the U.S. Department of Education. For more information on NASSP, visit www.principals.org.