The Building Tradesman Newspaper

Friday, September 15, 2000

Voucher system doesn't play by the rules of the game

By The Building Tradesman

Jeremy Hughes, superintendent of Dearborn Schools, argues that education vouchers will not provide parents with the choice and competition in education that voucher proponents promise. He urges voter opposition to the proposed amendment to the Michigan Constitution that is on the November ballot.

In November, Michigan voters will decide to allow public tax money to go to private and parochial schools in the form of what is called voucher. A voucher is a coupon good for a certain number of dollars of education. Parents could submit this voucher to a private or parochial school, and the school could, if it decides to enroll the student, cash it in with the State of Michigan.

Proponents of education vouchers repeatedly use two words: choice and competition. Vouchers, they say, will give parents choice in their children's education.

Vouchers, they say, will create some competition, for the public schools when parents have the money to send their children elsewhere. With competition, public schools will be forced to improve, or lose students. The public schools I know are not afraid of competition - they've regularly faced it. Alternative schools - private and parochial - have existed for years.

I have some words I'd like to use also to talk about vouchers. The words are "rules of the game."

In most of life, competition is based on playing by the same rules of the game. Government agencies exist to make sure that everyone plays by the same rules of the game. No one minds competition as long as competitors are playing by the same rules.

My concern about educational vouchers is that private and parochial schools do not have to play by the same rules as public schools.

They do not have to take everyone who applies. They can select their students.

They are allowed to use admissions tests to choose whom they will accept as students.

They can reject students of lower academic ability.

They can reject students with academic, behavioral or disciplinary problems.

They can reject students who are handicapped, learning disabled, and in need of special education services.

They can kick out students who misbehave, without due process that must be followed in expelling students from public schools.

They are not required to administer any state tests that are used to determine whether schools are being successful in teaching students.

They are not required to publish the results of whatever tests they do give. Therefore, parents and taxpayers won't know how well these students are learning.

They are not required to hire certified teachers.

They are not required to have a minimum number of days or total hours of school each year.

They are not required to be governed by a board of directors that is elected by and responsible to the people who elected them.

Whatever board does govern them is not required by law to hold its meetings in public, make its decisions in public or make its records available to the public.

Nothing in the proposed voucher program would change any of this. On the contrary, the legislation that is proposed would continue to exempt private and parochial from any such rules.

All of this leads me to ask some questions.

Is it really accurate to say that vouchers will give parents choice, when it really is the private school that will make the choice - that is, to choose whether to take your child and your voucher?

Is it really competition when the rules of the game are different for the players? Can you even win the competition when the opponent is free from most of the rules you have to follow?

Do I want my tax money going to support schools that are allowed to operate by different rules?

If being free from such rules is what will give students better education, if this is the competition that will improve public schools, why not exempt public schools from these rules also?

It is clear to me that if better education and competition is really the goal of the voucher movement, one of two things should happen:

Require any private or parochial school that accepts taxpayer-paid vouchers to play by the same rules as public schools.

OR, in the name of better education and competition, allow the public schools the same freedoms that are allowed the private and parochial schools.

Neither of these things, of course, is likely to happen.

Why? Because I think selection of students is the real issue behind vouchers. Parents who say they are dissatisfied with their children's public schools and want to help send their children to private or parochial schools are usually quick to say they are not trying to get away from their children's teachers or their principals. They are usually quick to say that these people are working hard to give their children a better education.

What they finally will admit is that they are trying to get away from other students:

Who are not interested in learning;

Whose parents are not involved in school;

Who are from a different cultural background;

Who are behavior problems in the school or classroom;

Who occupy too much of the teacher's time;

Who are bad examples or role models for their children.

If they thought for a minute that a private or parochial school, by accepting vouchers, had to accept all students, this voucher issue would disappear. Behind vouchers is the desire to have money to send children to a school that is selective and elite, a school that will keep out or quickly get rid of those whom parents do not want in their children's school.

Unless a voucher plan requires private and parochial schools to play by public school rules, or the public schools are freed from these rules, the voucher program will do nothing more than allow parents who choose private and parochial schools an additional way to pay for it. The fact that this will be taxpayer money is, in my opinion, an affront and an insult to public schools.