School vouchers: Who stands to gain at what cost?

The idea of school vouchers was first introduced in Vermont in 1869. It allowed parents who lived in sparsely populated areas to receive vouchers to send their children to any approved public or private high school in or out of the state.

When public school desegregation first surfaced in the 1950s, vouchers then became a vehicle for White parents to take their children out of public schools and enroll them in private or newly founded charter schools. Early voucher advocates influenced conservative political leaders to push for public subsidies for private school families. President Ronald Reagan consistently spoke in favor of school vouchers during his eight years in office.

School vouchers became a popular school choice option in the 1990s, especially for low-income families, thus continuing a long-standing debate locally and nationwide, generally around three main issues:

• whether public funds should be used for religious schools,

• determining what criteria private schools can use in selecting students, and

• how much private schools are held accountable for student performance.

New York established a program in the early 1970s that provided tuition reimbursement or tax deductions to parents, but the U.S. Supreme Court ruled it unconstitutional in 1973. A new voucher program began in Milwaukee in 1990 that allowed students to attend private, nonsectarian schools at taxpayer expense, the first such program in the U.S. to significantly subsidize private schools with public money.

The Milwaukee program was challenged in local court but later ruled constitutional by the Wisconsin Supreme Court. It eventually led to other programs in several U.S. cities and states.

The Florida legislature in 1999 passed a law that allowed children attending “failing schools” to attend private or parochial schools, but the law was later ruled unconstitutional by that state’s supreme court.

What are vouchers? There are three types:

1) universal, allowing all parents to direct funds set aside for education by the government to send their children to any school they choose, whether public, private or religious;

2) means-tested, given usually in limited numbers to income-eligible families, which can direct funds set aside by the government to pay for tuition at the public, private or religious schools of their choice; and

3) failing school vouchers, allowing parents whose children attend public schools identified as “failing” to meet standards to direct education set-aside funds to an academically better performing public, private or religious school of their choice.

The Supreme Court ruled in 2002 that a Cleveland school voucher program does not infringe upon the constitutional separation of church and state, a decision that further divided the pro-and-con voucher camps. Later that year, a national opinion poll conducted by the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies, a Washington, D.C., Black think tank, surveyed 2,463 adults in 2002 and found that the majority of Blacks supported vouchers: 41 percent of men and over 54 percent of women said they would support a voucher system where parents would get government money to send their children to the schools of their choice.

But do vouchers help low-income families? Neither the Court decision nor the Joint Center poll has definitively answered this question, but instead have further divided the pro-voucher and anti-voucher camps.

Some believe that vouchers would sound the death knell of U.S. public schools. Massachusetts U.S. Senator Edward Kennedy said of the Court ruling, “It’s flat wrong to take scarce taxpayer dollars away from public schools and divert them to private schools. Despite the Court’s ruling, vouchers are still bad policy for public schools, and Congress must not abandon its opposition to them.”

Others, such as the National School Boards Association and the National Educational Association, have long argued that school vouchers are subsidies for private schools and hurt public schools economically.

“Our position nationally is that we don’t support vouchers in the way it is being presented,” Minneapolis NAACP President Duane Reed has said of the national office’s historical position against school vouchers. “We are going to stand with that position and go to the state capital and lobby against it.”

However, voucher proponents such as the Black Alliance for Educational Options (BAEO) say that anti-voucher groups disseminate misinformation about school vouchers. In “Lies and Distortions: The Campaign Against School Vouchers” (April 2001), BAEO Founder Dr. Howard Fuller said, “These falsehoods often originate and are spread by organizations with multi-million dollar budgets.”

Since 1955, the Minnesota Legislature has passed legislation that enables parents to take tax deductions for educational expenses. A tax credit system for students attending nonpublic elementary and secondary schools was created in 1971 and upheld by a state trial court as constitutional in 1972.

The state legislature killed a private school vouchers plan endorsed by then-Gov. Arne Carlson in 1996. In 2005-06, bills were introduced in both state houses, including education access grants for low-income students in Minneapolis and St. Paul. They did not get passed.

Even though school voucher proponents argue that educational opportunities for low-income families would be expanded and parents’ educational costs would be defrayed by the use of vouchers, the following questions still exist:

1) How, for example, can $3,000 vouchers help low-income families if a private school’s tuition is $12,000 or more? “Very few people of our color are going to benefit from [vouchers],” argued Reed, who added that state lawmakers are again looking into education access grants, which he calls a code name for vouchers. “It is going to be under tax credits and deductions,” he predicted.

Current tax breaks offered by the Bush Administration through education accounts do not help poor families living below the poverty level — they can’t contribute the federal maximum of $2,000 a year to pay for private school tuition.

2) Even if vouchers are in place, do low-income families really get to choose the schools that fit their children’s educational needs? Voucher opponents say that private schools can pick and choose the students they want. What does this do for special needs children or students with learning disabilities, language barriers or behavioral problems?

3) According to vouchers opponents, research (admittedly inconclusive) hasn’t shown that student achievement increased when students attend other schools because of vouchers.

4) Despite polls that show most Blacks are in favor of vouchers, such support historically has come from conservative Whites. Is the pro-vouchers campaign a renewed effort from the 1950s that helped fuel White flight when public school desegregation began?

5) There are some who claim such pro-vouchers groups as BAEO are only pushing vouchers because they were originally funded by organizations usually associated with right-wing causes. Voucher proponents quickly dismissed this charge.

“Our organization is not all about vouchers,” said Minnesota BAEO consultant Chanda Smith, adding that she supports the current voucher discussion in the legislature but wants all affected parties represented in such talks. “We do happen to have a bunch of right-wing conservative people at the Capitol making decisions,” she said. “I think it is in our best interest to be part of that discussion.”

BAEO doesn’t support universal vouchers that can be used as tax credits for upper- and middle-class families, Smith claimed. “There should be some income restrictions on who can qualify,” she concluded. “You want to level the playing field with the guidelines.”