Tuition vouchers proclaimed as way to force public school improvement

February 13, 1992|By John W. Frece | John W. Frece,Annapolis Bureau

ANNAPOLIS -- If you don't like your local public school, should the state pay to send your kids somewhere else?

Some lawmakers say that's the way to make public schools toe the mark. Schools that don't shape up might find themselves out of business.

"The idea here is that you really have some situations where the school system is virtually failing the kids. There's a monopoly situation, so there's no incentive to change," said Del. Ellen R. Sauerbrey, R-Baltimore County, who's sponsoring two of three educational "voucher" programs that go before a House committee today.

In different variations, the proposals call for the state to give students who transfer out of the public schools vouchers that could be redeemed to cover part or all of private school tuition.

But such "choice" proposals have touched a nerve with teachers and school administrators, who say such measures would decimate traditional public school systems, leaving behind only those students too illiterate or poor to move.

Officials of the Maryland State Teachers Association and the state Department of Education are expected to testify against the measures at a Ways and Means Committee hearing today.

As frustration with public schools has mounted, the idea of giving parents more choice has gained the support of lawmakers from opposite ends of the political spectrum.

Among the sponsors of the bills on today's agenda are Mrs. Sauerbrey, the conservative minority leader of the House, and Howard P. Rawlings, a liberal Democrat from Baltimore.

One of Mrs. Sauerbrey's two bills would offer parents who send their children to private schools a voucher worth up to 65 percent of the amount the state spends per pupil to educate a child in a given jurisdiction.

The voucher, for example, would be worth much more in Baltimore, where the state per-pupil expenditure is high, than in Montgomery County, where it is not.

In no case could the value of the voucher exceed 90 percent of the cost of a student's private school tuition.

Mrs. Sauerbrey argues that poor jurisdictions such as the city would save money under such a program and would actually have more to spend on educating those children who remain in the public school system. Parochial schools that are having difficulty attracting enough students would also benefit, she said.

No private school would be forced to accept public school students, and the state would not exercise any new authority over private school curriculum or staffing other than to assure that basic health and safety precautions are taken and that students who apply are not discriminated against, she said.

"If public schools are doing a good job, they have nothing to fear," she said.

Mr. Rawlings and Del. Robert L. Flanagan, R-Howard, are co-sponsoring a similar but more limited proposal that would establish a pilot "choice" program involving 200 students a year in Prince George's County and Baltimore.

Mr. Flanagan said the idea is to compare the performance of those who participate in such a program in grades two through eight over a five-year period with those who applied for placement in private schools but were denied.

But V. Thomas Gray II, a spokesman for the state teachers' organization, said, "Vouchers are usually seen from our perspective as saying people have given up on the public schools. Instead of making the commitment to improve the public schools, they are looking for the easy way out."

"Everybody wants a quick fix," he added. "Leaving aside whether it would pay, leaving aside whether the facilities would be better, leaving aside whether teachers are adequate or well-trained, is it right to say the public should pay for two school systems?"

Jill Porter, legislative lobbyist for the Department of Education, said the department considered the idea of giving parents greater choice in schools, but decided to focus on a plan to improve the existing public school system.

Under that plan, begun in 1989, schools have until 1995 to meet statewide standards. Schools that don't will receive special attention, with the threat of state sanctions if they don't shape up within three more years.

"We don't want to take the schools out of the community," she said. "We really do believe if the community is involved, we can make a turnaround."

Today in Annapolis

10 a.m.: House and Senate convene, State House.

1 p.m.: Senate Budget and Taxation subcommittee holds budget hearings on state AIDS Administration and other health department agencies, Room 100.

1 p.m.: Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee considers bill to prohibit discrimination based on sexual orientation, Room 300, Senate Office Building.

1:30 p.m.: House Ways and Means Committee considers bills that would require the state to provide tuition vouchers for students who attend private schools instead of public schools, Room 110, House Office Building.

There are 54 days remaining in the 1992 General Assembly session.

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