Vouchers: the new battleground

Superintendent, Milano ISD

A fter months of speculation, Lt. Governor Dewhurst has announced Senator Dan Patrick will be the new Senate Education Chair. Dewhurst said, “It is time for bold changes, and I intend to work with Sen. Patrick to shake up the status quo in education and ensure the promise of a world-class education for Texas.”

For many, Patrick’s appointment was all but confirmed when Dewhurst, while in Florida at the Republican National Convention, said he would be working closely with Sen. Patrick on proposed school choice legislation for the upcoming session. Sen. Patrick is a school choice and voucher proponent and has already declared vouchers will be a centerpiece of his legislative agenda.

In August, Sen. Pat r ick described school choice legislation as “the photo ID bill of this session.” He continued by saying, “Our base has wanted us to pass a photo voter ID (law) for years, and we did it. They’ve been wanting us to pass school choice for years. This is the year to do it, in my view.”

Although the school voucher conversation has sparked numerous debates, the last time the issue was before the legislature was 2007 and the House voted against it 129-8. Patrick’s response—“The possibility of innovation in education is exciting in all areas and cannot be limited by an old debate over ‘vouchers’.”

The truth is the issues surrounding the debate haven’t changed much and we would be remiss to ignore these concerns. At a time when our public schools are not only threatened by inadequate funding, but also a long history of inequitable funding, this needs to be addressed. When conversations of vouchers takes place above all other critical issues not only is it senseless, but also a waste of the legislature’s time and effort. That being said, the following is a snapshot of what is going on across the country.

VOUCHERS ACROSS AMERICA—In June 2002, the U.S. Supreme Court in Zel- man, Superintendent of Public Instruction of Ohio, et al, v. Simmons-Harris et al., ruled that vouchers did not violate the Establishment Clause, thus leading the way for voucher programs throughout the U.S. So the discussion surrounding vouchers and the push for school choice is not new, nor is it unique to Texas.

A handful of states currently have some type of voucher, be it low income, special needs, etc. These include Louisiana, Indiana, Ohio, Wisconsin (Milwaukee), Florida, Maine, Vermont, Utah and the District of Columbia. A few other states have considered adopting a voucher program and their voters said no.

Proponents have long argued that if a student can use public money to attend any school, even a private one, public schools will then have to compete and improve. They also say it allows low-income students a wider range of educational opportunities, a better education due to the absence of bureaucracy and it gives parents more influence over their child’s education.

As you may well know, public school supporters can easily counter each of the proponents’ claims, and in turn, present reasons why a voucher system sounds great in theory. However, the evidence is less than definitive when it comes to supporting the voucher “pie in the sky” claims.

For example, a March 2011 article in the Milwaukee-Wisconsin Journal Sentinel reported that student’s in Milwaukee’s school choice program performed worse than or about the same as students in Milwaukee public schools in math and reading. This was the first apples-to-apples achievement comparison between public and individual voucher schools and the results do not appear to be in the voucher proponents’ or children’s favor.

So, before we dive headlong into voucher water, perhaps we should take a good look at what lies beneath – we owe it to our children, our taxpayers, and the great state of Texas.

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