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October 1, 1998
Vol. 56
No. 2

Why I Don't Vouch for Vouchers

Supporters tout vouchers as the solution to school accountability problems. Yet voucher proposals raise disturbing questions about public information, equity, segregation, and the separation of church and state.

The principal was being fired, teachers were leaving, the school was in upheaval. At the time, I was a reporter for the Milwaukee Journal, covering a parents' meeting on the controversy.
I never made it to the meeting. Lawyers stood in my way. They said it was a private school and reporters were not welcome. End of discussion. I was angry but found out the lawyers were right. Shutting a reporter out of a parents' meeting is illegal in Milwaukee public schools. But private schools operate by different rules.
I was reminded of the incident when the Wisconsin Supreme Court ruled last June that Milwaukee's voucher program does not violate the constitutional separation of church and state. For now, low-income students in Milwaukee will be able to use public vouchers to attend private and religious schools.
End of discussion? Not this time. The court decision has not resolved the controversy over vouchers. It has merely opened up a Pandora's box of new issues.

Problematic Policy

Milwaukee began providing vouchers for private schools in 1990. The program initially was limited to a small number of low-income children at a handful of nonreligious schools. The court ruling allows the program to expand to as many as 15,000 children attending private and religious schools. Cleveland has a similar program.
Although still small in size, voucher programs are becoming the educational buzz of the day. On the federal level, the rhetoric of vouchers has been used to justify such initiatives as tuition tax credits. In addition, there are several privately funded voucher programs. If a voucher proposal is not yet available in your state, just wait. Vouchers are coming your way.
Everyone knows there are problems with achievement and accountability in our public schools. But the best response is to make the public schools more accountable, not to use tax dollars to subsidize private schools with minimal public accountability. Do we really want to set up two separate school systems, one private and one public, yet both supported by tax dollars?
The U.S. Supreme Court must ultimately decide whether public vouchers for religious schools violate the separation of church and state. Constitutional issues aside, voucher proposals raise important questions. Here are just a few.
It's not mere coincidence that the term private is so often followed by the phrase Keep Out! Private schools, like private roads, private beaches, and private country clubs, don't have to answer to the public.
  • Do not have to obey the state's open meetings and records laws.
  • Do not have to hire certified teachers—or even to require a college degree.
  • Do not have to release information on employee wages or benefits.
  • Do not have to administer the statewide tests required of public schools.
  • Do not have to publicly release data such as test scores, attendance figures, or suspension and drop-out rates. The only requirement is a "financial and performance evaluation audit" of the entire voucher program to be submitted to the legislature in the year 2000.

Will vouchers be used to further segregate our schools?

Families send their children to private schools for many reasons. But one of Milwaukee's dirty little secrets is that some white parents use private schools to get around desegregation efforts. In Milwaukee, the public schools are approximately 60 percent African American. At Divine Savior/Holy Angels and Pius XIth High Schools, only 3 percent of the students are African American. At Milwaukee's most elite religious high school, Marquette University High School, 5 percent of the students are African American. Some religious elementary schools in Milwaukee do not have any African American students. The issue also goes beyond race. Will vouchers further stratify our schools along religious lines?

Will private schools weed out "undesirable" students?

Private schools can control whom they accept and the terms upon which students stay enrolled. The Milwaukee program, which is far better than most voucher proposals, has two safeguards: The schools are to select voucher students on a random basis, and they may not discriminate on the basis of race, color, or national origin. One problem, however, is enforcement. Who ensures that the rules are followed? More important, controversy has erupted over whether the voucher schools must follow other requirements of Wisconsin public schools—for example, that they not discriminate on the basis of gender or sexual orientation. One of the most contentious issues in Milwaukee involves students with special educational needs, who account for about 15 percent of public school students. Voucher proponents argue that the private schools don't have the money for special education students, thus the Milwaukee Public Schools must serve them.
Milwaukee voucher schools have also used more subtle means to select their students. Some set parental involvement requirements, for instance. Perhaps most important, private schools can expel students, for both academic and discipline reasons, without adhering to the rights of due process. Will voucher schools be able to do likewise?
In one telling incident in Milwaukee in 1995, an African American student was asked not to return to the elite and private University School after she criticized the school as racist in a speech before her English class. She filed suit on grounds of freedom of speech. She lost. Federal Judge Terrence Evans wrote, It is an elementary principle of constitutional law that the protections afforded by the Bill of Rights do not apply to private actors such as the University School. Generally, restrictions on constitutional rights that would be protected at a public high school . . . need not be honored at a private high school.

How can the public oversee religious schools without stepping on religious principles?

Under the First Amendment, the government is not to "entangle" itself in the running of religious institutions. As a result, however, religious schools can fire teachers who violate deeply held religious principles—such as a gay teacher or a teacher who supports the right to abortion. What will happen with religious schools that receive public vouchers? Will they be able to teach that homosexuality is a sin, that creationism is superior to the theory of evolution, that corporal punishment keeps children in line, that birth control violates the law of God, that the Jews killed Christ, or that there is no God but Allah?

Can the markeplace solve the problems of our public schools?

Some voucher supporters are guided by the admirable desire to provide individual opportunities for low-income children in urban areas. The moving forces behind vouchers, however, have a more specific ideological agenda. In essence, voucher proposals assume that privatization and the marketplace—in other words, the dismantling of the institution of public education—hold the key to education reform.
But in what other social arena—whether health care, housing, food, or jobs—has the marketplace equitably and adequately provided services? We live in the bastion of free enterprise, the richest, most powerful country in the world. Yet one-quarter of our nation's young children live in poverty, and millions go hungry and homeless.
Under the rules of the marketplace, some people live in cardboard boxes and some people have vacation homes on Cape Cod. Some take the bus, some drive brand new BMWs. In the marketplace, money doesn't talk. It shouts. Is that our vision for public education?
Further, the marketplace values individual choice and decision making over collective responsibility for the common good. If we look to private schools and parental choice to solve complicated problems of school reform, we distort the purpose of public education. We are "saving" a few children while giving up on the majority who will remain in public schools.
Up to 15,000 children will be allowed to use public money to attend private and religious schools in Milwaukee this fall. With the voucher worth almost $5,000 a pupil, as much as $75 million in taxpayers' money will be taken from the Milwaukee Public Schools and given to private schools—with minimal public accountability.
It may be legal. But is it a good idea?
End Notes

1 Editorial. (1995, September 10). Milwaukee Journal Sentinel.

Barbara Miner has been a contributor to Educational Leadership.

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