Utah heats up long-simmering school-voucher debate
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Charter schools are a more popular form of school choice, sometimes as a compromise to stave off a push for vouchers. These schools stay in the realm of public accountability, but they free principals and teachers from some of the traditional bureaucracy.Skip to next paragraph
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One key difference for people concerned about educational equity is that if charter schools are in high demand, they're supposed to select students by lottery, whereas under a voucher system, private schools can choose which students to serve, says Helen Ladd, professor of public policy studies at Duke University.
Professor Ladd co-wrote a book about education in New Zealand, where money follows a student to whatever school he or she attends. The hope was the system would revitalize the most challenged schools. But instead, Ladd says, those schools "were even worse off than they were before, because motivated parents took advantage of the opportunity to move their children ... and left behind in the traditional public schools even greater concentrations of disadvantaged students."
So far, there's no scholarly consensus that voucher programs in the US make a significant difference in student achievement. Two studies of the Milwaukee program, for instance, came up with different results, one showing improvement in reading and math scores for participants and the other showing no gains.
The Bush administration, as well as Rep. Howard "Buck" McKeon (R) of California, recently proposed providing scholarships to students in schools that repeatedly fail to meet the goals outlined in NCLB – money that could be used in private schools.
With Democrats in control of Congress, that's not likely to gain traction. The chairman of the House Education and Labor Committee, Rep. George Miller (D) of California, "does not believe that private school vouchers are an acceptable proposal," says spokesman Aaron Albright.
Nevertheless, "NCLB paves the way for school choice, because public school transfers have proven inadequate," says Mr. Bolick of the Alliance for School Choice.
Bolick also says small-scale programs, such as a two-year-old voucher system for students in Utah who have special- education needs, build a more welcoming atmosphere for broader voucher laws.
On the ground in Utah, those advocating for a referendum to repeal the recent Parent Choice in Education Act say there are plenty of good choices in the public school system. "You have all kinds of rights through Title I [funding for low-income students] to get extra help for your children," says Marilyn Kofford, Utah PTA education commissioner and a spokeswoman for Utahns for Public Schools, a group organizing the petition drive. Students in low-performing schools can get tutoring, for instance.
Utah also has open enrollment, allowing parents to send children to any public school in the state that has room.
"If the public wants vouchers, great, but we feel like this is such a key issue that the general public should have the opportunity of saying yes or no," Ms. Kofford says, noting that the bill passed the House by only one vote. Her group has a few more weeks to gather more than 92,000 signatures to challenge the law.
It's mainly teachers unions' that object, say the law's supporters. "We're not saying public schools are bad, we're saying let parents make that choice – not 'educrats,' not unions," says Nancy Pomeroy, communications director for Parents for Choice in Education in Salt Lake City. "What are they afraid of, that everyone is going to leave public schools in droves?"
Depending on how poll questions are worded, Americans have shown a range of response (anywhere from 36 percent to 60 percent) over the past couple of years in favor of allowing students to use public funds to attend public or private schools.
A poll earlier this month by the Deseret Morning News found that 39 percent (+/- 5 points) would vote in favor of the Utah voucher plan, 55 percent against.