Finding the best solution for public education problems (Gurr)

Last week, President Bush hailed private schools as the answer to America’s public education woes. Enthusiastic about a pilot program that provides federal vouchers to eligible students in Washington, D.C., Bush cited vouchers as a guaranteed recipe for success. Republicans are convinced that private education is the solution to ailing public schools. The only problem: Vouchers simply don’t work. They divert valuable public funds and attention from beleaguered public schools and they don’t help students improve.

Bush is urging Congress to support federally funded voucher programs nationwide. Conservatives maintain that vouchers will spark competition and force public schools to improve. That just doesn’t make any sense. The problem is seldom motivation but largely a lack of resources-be it teachers, materials, books or school buildings. Withdrawing already too-scarce funds from ailing public systems will not spark competition-it will force failure.

Many Republicans argue that a diversion of funds will inspire change. But the priorities are mixed up: If there is no money to adequately fund public schools, there is not enough money to redirect to private education. Public education cannot instantly recover from decades of dramatic community growth and steadily tightening budget restrictions without support or adequate funding.

Conservatives typically argue that money is not the only solution and that public schools need to work with limited resources. But money matters, and without adequate funding, public schools will not have the smaller class sizes, qualified teachers or quality buildings and materials they need to succeed. Bush’s budget proposes to underfund the No Child Left Behind Act by $9.4 billion while shortchanging more than 30 other education programs-that is, promises already made. Public schools deserve a chance to work with what they’ve been promised before they are dismissed as sinking ships.

It’s also upsetting that Bush wants to spend public money on services that are not publicly accountable. Private schools are not held to uniform standards of curriculum. Across the country, many private schools are religious schools and public funds do not belong with religious institutions. Contrary to conservative claims, the separation between church and state is an important part of the integrity of American government.

The obvious irony is that conservatives usually advocate the smallest amount of federal involvement possible. The usual Republican anthem is to let the states decide. If vouchers will remedy all public school afflictions, you’d expect it to be a state issue. Instead, Bush is pushing Congress to expand a federal voucher program across the country, proposing to spend more than $50 million on federally funded initiatives-another example of conservative hypocrisy.

Vouchers aren’t just ideologically alarming-they don’t work. There is no reliable evidence that they improve performance. And even if the few students who get vouchers succeed, the majority of American students will always be in the public education system. Assistance for a few at the expense of the rest robs lower- and middle income Americans of the opportunities they deserve.

Proposed programs will not help the most deserving students.

The new program in D.C. requires students to gain admission to private schools and then cover any costs, including tuition, that exceed their voucher amounts. Students who could benefit most from improved education may not be admitted because they have not yet developed reading or math skills in their struggling public schools. If admitted, lower income students are less likely to actually attend private school because their families cannot pay the difference in cost.

Private school vouchers are a bad idea. Draining public funds from basic civil responsibilities is not the answer. This is a critical time for public education and President Bush is failing Americans by ignoring his responsibility to fund and strengthen public schools.

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