Vouchers can't fix public schools

July 31, 2000|By Anne L. Bryant

ALEXANDRIA, Va. -- These are challenging times for public education.

The public tells pollsters that they want to make public schools better and they don't want vouchers, especially if they would hurt their children's school. But Congress and the courts seem to be moving in the opposite direction.

Last month, six Supreme Court justices agreed that it is constitutional to spend tax dollars for computers and other technology for private schools. Congress threatened to pass legislation creating education savings accounts to give a tax credit to parents paying private school tuition.

It seems to me that the public has it right. Congress and the Supreme Court -- both heading down the voucher path -- are penalizing children in a misguided effort to fix failing schools.

The court rulings and congressional rhetoric around school vouchers serve only to steal time, money and attention away from real efforts to improve troubled schools. Using public tax dollars to send some students to private schools will do nothing to fix the aging infrastructure and restore depleted resources.

A series of polls -- from Gallup to the Washington Post -- tell us that the public wants to improve our public schools but not by creating a private school voucher program.

Vouchers are a quick fix, which sound appealing, but in the end they are neither quick nor a fix. Numerous studies have shown that voucher programs steal away the brightest students, weaken public education and waste taxpayers' money.

Some schools are not doing the job they need to do, but taking money away from them is not the solution.

Turning around troubled schools takes time. The answer to improving failing schools is not a magic potion.

If a school is failing, the school board and superintendent need to find out why. They need to ask the right questions and solve the core problem so that the children in that school can get a quality education. This may be common sense, but it works.

In Florida, for example, all public schools are graded from A through F and the state imposes sanctions if a school gets an F for two years in a four-year period. Last month, each of Florida's F schools were removed from the F list -- all of the schools that were in danger of failing have turned around and are improving.

The principal of one of those schools, Loretta Jenkins of Fessenden Elementary School, said recently that they were devastated when their school got a failing grade last year. But, with the mark hanging over their heads, the school made progress.

Also in Florida, the school board and superintendent of Pinellas County schools reached out to teachers, staff and the entire community by involving them in the improvement process.

The district posted some of the highest writing scores in the state. SAT scores are above the state and national average and several elementary schools have shown more than a 30 percent increase in the results of standardized tests.

The leadership found out what was wrong and fixed it, without the help of vouchers.

If the problem is the leadership or the teaching quality in the school district, the board and superintendent have to take steps to fix it. They must increase professional development, training, or use a mentoring program that pairs a successful teacher with a new one.

In Cincinnati, its Peer Assistance and Evaluation Program, which pairs a veteran teacher with a new teacher is proving to be a model for districts across the country.

However, if there are employees not doing their jobs, then the ultimate step is to replace them.

There is no excuse for any child being trapped in a failing environment. Every child can become a successful learner, but every school needs to have clean and friendly buildings, adequate resources and well-trained administrators and teachers.

Now is not the time to turn our backs on our public school students. Rather, let's face the challenges head-on and solve them for generations to come.

The public gets it; the court and lawmakers should too.

Anne L. Bryant is executive director of the National School Boards Association.

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