The voucher diversion

July 07, 2002|By Susan Goering

THE SUPREME Court narrowly voted to uphold a Cleveland voucher plan that funnels public money overwhelmingly to religious private schools. By a slim 5-4 vote, the court reversed a 2001 appeals court ruling that had invalidated Cleveland's voucher program.

The decision came a month after Maryland's General Assembly chose a different and far better path - increasing annual public school funding across the state by $1.3 billion by fiscal year 2008, as recommended by the state's Thornton Commission.

The American Civil Liberties Union, whose 1994 education reform lawsuit helped catalyze the legislature's decision this spring, congratulates Maryland's leaders for standing behind public schools.

Despite what advocates of vouchers may say, we cannot rescue troubled public schools by providing a way for students to abandon public schools. The answer to troubled schools is not to funnel public funds to private institutions, but to require states to improve public education for all children.

Vouchers fly in the face of the fundamental democratic principles upon which our country was founded. Our system of public education has been the great leveler, allowing even the poorest among us to rise above the circumstances into which they were born. Private school vouchers encourage economic, racial, ethnic and religious stratification at a time when we need to unify our diverse populations.

Voucher proponents mislead us with the claim that vouchers will benefit inner city schoolchildren. In fact, the General Accounting Office, the watchdog of Congress, reported in 2001 only minimal differences in student achievement between voucher-eligible students who attended public and private schools.

What does benefit at-risk children is more money spent wisely and well in public schools. Again, Maryland is the bellwether state.

Five years ago, as a result of our education reform suit, the ACLU, Baltimore City and Maryland reached a legal agreement that required both city school system management reform and state funding increases.

These sparked enormous gains in academic achievement in a relatively short period. As The Sun reported on June 25, Baltimore elementary schools "have made remarkable progress" on national tests for reading and math since the agreement was enacted in 1997. City MSPAP scores have steadily risen, at a rate above the state average.

Now the recently passed Thornton funding will support expansion of those reforms to middle and high schools. No wonder groups such as the NAACP oppose vouchers and support direct efforts to improve public schools.

And do vouchers really give parents school choice?

First, voucher programs only pay for a fraction of the tuition in private schools, leaving most at-risk children unable to attend any - and certainly not the best - private school.

True choice, which would include the entire range of private secular schools, would cost the state far more to subsidize than any state has been willing to spend and is beyond the reach of any voucher program yet proposed. And since it would likewise cost far too much to send every child to a private school, "lotteries" are often used to determine which children get vouchers, which leaves those who don't "win" with no "choice" at all.

Then there is a far more salient fact: Private schools are under no obligation to accept at-risk children at all. And many don't.

While some state legislators will try to use the Supreme Court's decision as a platform for introducing new voucher legislation, the American public fortunately appears much less willing than the court to use taxpayer dollars to fund private schools. In recent elections, voters in California and Michigan as well as at least 26 state legislatures soundly rejected voucher schemes - as Maryland voters did in 1972. Even a Republican-dominated U.S. Congress failed to pass a voucher bill in 1999.

On Aug. 17, 1867, Maryland's founders singled out public education as a governmental obligation so fundamental that it was worth enshrining in the state's constitution. In 1994, the ACLU helped some of Maryland's poorest children stake a claim in the courts for that bedrock constitutional right.

This spring, Maryland's legislative leadership took a huge step toward breathing life into that right. The legislature put Maryland at the forefront among states that value public education and will not be diverted by voucher schemes that distract us from the long and steady progress toward a solid education for all Maryland's children.

Susan Goering is executive director of the ACLU of Maryland.

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