Saturday, October 18, 2008

School Vouchers - Update

I am opposed to federal vouchers that allow some students to opt out of their neighborhood public school and attend a different public or private school. The system as proposed by GW Bush and operating in Washington, DC is offered only to children of low income families. The objective is to make a better educational environment available to children in failing public schools whose families cannot afford to move their children to better schools. The expectation is that these students will perform better if they attend better schools, which without exception are private schools (72% are parochial schools). My issue is that a disproportionate amount of federal funding is spent on the few students that use vouchers, which leaves far less money to support and improve the public schools. How can we justify abandoning the majority of public school students to underfunded schools so that a small percentage of students can attend private schools?

Although the expectation is that these students will receive a better education in a better school, the reality is that these students are not performing better than they did in their neighborhood school.

The federal government subsidizes the Washington, DC schools as they do all school systems. The subsidy is intended to improve the educational system, i.e. more and better teachers, more and better equipment. Washington, DC receives an educational subsidy of $74 million of which $18 million is earmarked for the voucher system. The Washington, DC school system serves 71,629 students in public schools (37% attend charter schools). Private schools in Washington, DC serve 17,562 students. A total of 1,903 students attend private schools using vouchers.

Students using vouchers are only 2.6% of the total of public school students yet the voucher system receives 24% of the federal funding to Washington, DC schools.

One parent of a voucher student, Breanna, said the prospect of turning her daughter over to a public school was frightening. "I didn't feel that was a good environment," Ms. Walton, a single mother of two, said. "But I couldn't afford to send her anywhere else." Breanna is now a 6-year-old first-grade student at the private Rock Creek International School, where the average class size is 12 and the student-teacher ratio is 7-to-1. She has as classmates the children of international corporate executives and foreign ambassadors. Breanna's curriculum is the International Baccalaureate program, and she is taught regularly in English, French, Spanish, and Arabic. Trips abroad - to Europe, Africa, South America, the Middle East - are part of the curriculum, and Breanna will participate. The school's facilities are bright, colorful, and clean, on a quiet, tree-lined street in Georgetown. According to Ms. Walton, it's a far cry from what awaited Breanna at her local public school.

Although most if not all parents would prefer that their children attend such a school. It is not and never will be available to all the Washington, DC school children. The "children that are left behind" in the public schools can only expect that their educational experience will worsen as more vouchers result in less funding of the public schools.

In my opinion the voucher system is the means by which the federal government diverts educational funding from the public school system to the private school system. Is the ultimate goal to privatize education?

In January GW Bush will be out of the White House. Congress does not plan to extend the voucher system. I hope the next president will focus on improving the public school system rather than abandoning it.

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