We Should All Agree on Vouchers Issue

September 01, 2000

Whether or not you agree with all the American Civil Liberties Union does, surely we agree that public education must be defended. Public education is the cornerstone of American democracy. An educated electorate is vital to sustaining a democracy.

Public education is the institution designed to create one nation with shared values out of many different ethnic, racial, and religious groups. We must continue to improve, not abandon, it.

Michigan's constitutional language prohibits the use of public funds for private and parochial schools. But in November 2000 we will be voting to amend the Constitution to:

  • Eliminate the prohibition on indirect funding, allowing parents to receive tuition vouchers for use at private or parochial schools.
  • Require school districts with graduation rates below two-thirds to offer tuition vouchers, and also allow voters or school boards in any school district to approve voucher plans with a minimal number of signatures.
  • Mandate teacher testing in academic subjects.

Allowing indirect funding may be a less obvious violation of the First Amendment, but it is no less unconstitutional. There is no question that tax dollars will eventually flow to church-run schools since 85 percent of private schools in Michigan are parochial.

The argument you'll hear most often from voucher supporters is that vouchers would give parent's a choice. Parents already have the right to choose a religious education for their children. Taxpayers should not be expected to pay for that choice.

Beyond the obvious that vouchers violate the constitutional principle of church/state separation, framing the issue as "school choice" is false advertising.

  • Vouchers offer no guarantee of admission.
  • Vouchers require no change in a school's admission policy. Private schools don't have to admit students or can discriminate on the basis of disability, IQ, achievement scores, income, gender, religion, or sexual orientation. They don't have to offer special education services and most, in fact, do not.
  • Private schools are not forced to accept vouchers. In a new voucher program in one Florida county, only five of 25 schools participate; four are Roman Catholic and one is Montessori. Although 91 children applied for vouchers, only 59 spaces are available.

If there is no guarantee that a voucher can be used and a school, not a parent, gets to choose who attends the school, can this really be considered parental choice?

And what about the cost of this so-called "choice" to Michigan taxpayers and to the 90 percent of the children who will choose to remain in neighborhood schools? Whether or not you have children, vouchers will effect your pocketbook. They are simply bad public policy.

  • At an average cost of at least $3,500 per student, vouchers will cost Michigan taxpayers $700 million per year just for the students who are currently enrolled in private schools, leaving fewer dollars to educate the vast majority of the state's children.
  • A costly new bureaucracy will be needed to administer public funds to private institutions.
  • Property values are largely determined by the quality of neighborhood schools. Values will decline if the public school becomes impoverished.
  • New private schools may be opened for profit, using taxpayer dollars to line the pockets of businessmen, not to educate children.

We can also learn a lot from experiences in Milwaukee and Cleveland. In 1998-99, Milwaukee's voucher program cost $27.8 million for 6,000 children; 5,000 of those were previously in private school or kindergarten. In Cleveland, $1.9 million was misspent and $1.4 million dollars was spent on taxi service in 1997 and in 1998. There was a 41 percent overrun, resulting in a $2.9 million reduction in public school funds; 75 percent of those using vouchers were previously in private school or kindergarten.

Unlike public schools, private and parochial schools are unregulated and unaccountable to taxpayers. Yet public funds will be used to subsidize them.

If the goal is really about improving education we would be discussing smaller class size since the research is quite clear: This is the most effective strategy for increasing student achievement. We would also be talking about improving technology, increasing teacher training, increasing parental involvement, and improving the physical structure of the learning environment.

We are in for the fight of our lives, but you can help us win by talking to your friends, relatives and neighbors. Tell them we need to improve public education for all children, not just the few who may utilize vouchers. If you read a pro-voucher article, opinion piece or letter to the editor, don't let it go unanswered.

With no evidence to indicate that voucher students perform better than comparable public school students, why are we talking about draining funds needed to educate all children? The pro-voucher campaign, "Kids First, Yes!" should really be called "Some Kids First, Yes!" Consider your refusal to sign the ballot initiative petition an early NO vote.

By Wendy Wagenheim, ACLU Legislative Director

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