Magazine article Insight on the News

Private Vouchers Are Going Public

Magazine article Insight on the News

Private Vouchers Are Going Public

Article excerpt

Graffiti covers a decaying building where armed guards patrol the cinder-block hallways. The inner-city public school is expected to open three weeks late due to fire-code violations, and parents are outraged. This is the deteriorating face of the school system, twisted by drugs and violence, that has turned many public schools from ivory towers into prisons. Desperate parents, such as those who arrived at a Texas school-board meeting with guns holstered at their hips, are demanding reform.

"The idea that people are that desperate, that hungry to obtain a quality education for their children, is a strong indication that something is fatally wrong with the present school system," Texas state Rep. Glenn Lewis told the U.S. Senate Labor Committee at a hearing in late July

Lewis is one of many community leaders and parents nationwide who are bucking old political alliances to support vouchers to pay tuition for poor children to attend private schools. Rep. Floyd Flake, a New York Democrat and school-choice proponent, has endorsed vouchers; Washington Post columnist William Raspberry says he is willing to consider the option; and a number of other political liberals are rallying to the once predominantly conservative cause.

"They are compassionate and they are seeing firsthand the disaster which is condemning these children to no future," says Georgia Sen. Paul Coverdell, chairman of the Republican Task Force on Education, explaining this unexpected support.

A June 1997 opinion poll released by the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies found that "support for school vouchers for use in public, private or parochial schools is surprisingly strong and has substantially increased since the 1996 Joint Center survey." Hispanics backed vouchers by 65.4 percent, blacks by 57.3 percent and whites by 47.2 percent. Since 1996, African-American support for vouchers has increased 19 percent and, in the 26-to-35 age group, 86.5 percent endorse a voucher program.

This idea that began in the mind of libertarian economist Milton Friedman in 1955 has become a national movement with political momentum. It has encouraged Jersey City, N.J., Mayor Bret Schundler, for one, to stop waiting for legislation tied up in the statehouse.

"I think parents have an inalienable human right to govern the values of the education of their children," says Schundler. In March 1996 he introduced the Richard L. Williams Memorial Fund Awards, a private effort providing up to $1,000 for 42 public-school students to attend private schools. An additional 10 scholarships have been awarded since, with 50 more to be awarded by the end of September.

We have a lot of "good parents but ad neighborhoods," Schundler tells sight. This program was designed to options to inner-city children who need the work ethic and values of their parents reinforced at school, he says. "You have people with the belief that the deck is stacked against them and they give up. But send that child off to Catholic school where they are taught that God loves you and will give the strength you need to carry on" and there is a chance for success, the Protestant mayor observes.

Schundler still is pushing a state-sponsored pilot program in his city because, he says, private scholarships alone are not able to meet the national needs of students studying in urban and rural decay. "That is why I believe in publicly funded vouchers," he says.

Ohio, Wisconsin, Minnesota, Massachusetts and Vermont all have passed some form of low-income voucher legislation or tax incentive. At least 20 states have been considering school-choice proposals and 44 governors support the voucher alternative, according to the Heritage Foundation, a conservative Washington think tank. Wisconsin, Ohio and Vermont all face court challenges surrounding constitutional questions involving the First Amendment prohibition against government establishment of religion. …

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