Romney's Voucher Plan Puts Public Schools At Risk

For Mitt Romney, the love that dare not speak its name is "vouchers." Two weeks after he delivered a major address on education policy in which he never mentioned the V word, the New York Times detailed Romney's proposal to divert $25 billion

For Mitt Romney, the love that dare not speak its name is "vouchers." Two weeks after he delivered a major address on education policy in which he never mentioned the V word, the New York Times detailed Romney's proposal to divert $25 billion in taxpayer dollars to religious, private and for-profit schools. But voters don't have to imagine what that plan, an old GOP twofer designed to subsidize Christian institutions while bludgeoning Democratic-friendly teachers unions, will do to American public education. As the frightening results in states like Louisiana, Indiana, Georgia and Arizona show, the Republican voucher dream is fast becoming America's nightmare present.

Governor Romney has been an advocate of so-called "school choice" since his first run for the White House. In 2007, Romney suggested American parents should not only be encouraged to abandon the public schools; they should be rewarded for it with a tax break for home schooling their kids:

"I also believe parents who are teaching their kids at home, homeschoolers, deserve a break, and I've asked for a tax credit to help parents in their homes with the cost of being an at-home teacher."

Now, as the Republican nominee outlined in a recent speech to the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, Romney wants to redirect $25 billion from two federal programs into a new voucher scheme. As the New York Times explained:

As president, Mr. Romney would seek to overhaul the federal government's largest programs for kindergarten through 12th grade into a voucherlike system. Students would be free to use $25 billion in federal money to attend any school they choose -- public, charter, online or private -- a system, he said, that would introduce marketplace dynamics into education to drive academic gains.

But as the experience in Indiana and Louisiana suggests, that system would instead introduce large quantities of public cash into the coffers of religious schools and academies whose educational credentials may be suspect at best.

In "Vouchers Breathe New Life into Shrinking Catholic Schools," the Wall Street Journal last week revealed that Indiana Governor Mitch Daniels' voucher program is proving a major boon to the bishops supposedly concerned about government mandates. "Driven by expanding voucher programs, outreach to Hispanic Catholics and donations by business leaders," WSJ reported, "Catholic schools in several major cities are swinging back from closures and declining enrollment." For example:

Thanks to vouchers, St. Stanislaus, which was $140,000 in debt to the Catholic Diocese of Gary at the end of 2010, picked up 72 new students, boosting enrollment by 38%.

"God has been good to us," says Ms. [Principal Kathleen] Lowry. "Growth is a good problem to have."

Mark Gray of the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate at Georgetown University explained why.

As the Journal noted, getting more students enrolled in Catholic schools is "clearly one of the top priorities" for the church as it tries to get more faithful back into the pews. As Gray put it, "There is an important long-term effect on the Catholic population by having them in schools."

Of course, there is an important effect on public schools as well.

Critics, including teacher unions, say vouchers drain resources from public schools, siphon off the brightest students with the most engaged parents, and, in the case of Catholic schools, violate the separation of church and state by sending tax dollars to religious institutions...Krista Stockman, spokeswoman for the nearby public school district Fort Wayne Community Schools, which lost nearly 400 students and $4.2 million in state funding to vouchers--more than any district in the state--says it is tough for her schools to compete. "There's this unfair perception out there that all private schools are better than public schools," she says.

That's certainly not the case in Bobby Jindal's Louisiana, where voucher-receiving institutions must be blessed by the state. As the Daily Kingfish noted, over 90 percent of the 115 schools qualifying for Jindal's $8.500 voucher are religious institutions. And as Reuters documented, many of the 7,450 slots reserved for voucher students are at some pretty suspect schools:

The school willing to accept the most voucher students -- 314 -- is New Living Word in Ruston, which has a top-ranked basketball team but no library. Students spend most of the day watching TVs in bare-bones classrooms. Each lesson consists of an instructional DVD that intersperses Biblical verses with subjects such chemistry or composition.

The Upperroom Bible Church Academy in New Orleans, a bunker-like building with no windows or playground, also has plenty of slots open. It seeks to bring in 214 voucher students, worth up to $1.8 million in state funding.

At Eternity Christian Academy in Westlake, pastor-turned-principal Marie Carrier hopes to secure extra space to enroll 135 voucher students, though she now has room for just a few dozen. Her first- through eighth-grade students sit in cubicles for much of the day and move at their own pace through Christian workbooks, such as a beginning science text that explains "what God made" on each of the six days of creation. They are not exposed to the theory of evolution.

"We try to stay away from all those things that might confuse our children," Carrier said.

Meanwhile in places like Arizona and Georgia, Republican governors and legislatures are trying to confuse taxpayers and the United States Supreme Court. In April 2011, a 5-4 majority upheld an Arizona law which tried to evade the voucher controversy by giving gives taxpayers there a dollar-for-dollar state tax credit of up to $500 for donations to private "student tuition organizations." The organizations are permitted to limit the scholarships they offer to schools of a given religion, and many of them do. While Justice Anthony Kennedy's majority opinion claimed "awarding some citizens a tax credit allows other citizens to retain control over their own funds in accordance with their own consciences," dissenting Justice Elena Kagan saw through the façade. As the New York Times noted:

Justice Elena Kagan, in her first dissent, said the majority had laid waste to the doctrine of "taxpayer standing," which allows suits from people who object to having tax money spent on religious matters. "The court's opinion," Justice Kagan wrote, "offers a road map -- more truly, just a one-step instruction -- to any government that wishes to insulate its financing of religious activity from legal challenge."

Georgia provides a case in point for the insulation of government financial of religious activity from legal challenge. There, a $50 million program supposedly offering $2,500 tax credits for donations to "nonprofit scholarship groups" to help poor and needy children turned into something else altogether. Instead, the New York Times documented last month, the Georgia program became just another vehicle to siphon government funds into non-secular schools:

That was the idea, at least. But parents meeting at Gwinnett Christian Academy got a completely different story last year.

"A very small percentage of that money will be set aside for a needs-based scholarship fund," Wyatt Bozeman, an administrator at the school near Atlanta, said during an informational session. "The rest of the money will be channeled to the family that raised it."

...Most of the private schools are religious. Nearly a quarter of the participating schools in Georgia require families to make a profession of religious faith, according to their Web sites. Many of those schools adhere to a fundamentalist brand of Christianity. A commonly used sixth-grade science text retells the creation story contained in Genesis, omitting any other explanation. An economics book used in some high schools holds that the Antichrist -- a world ruler predicted in the New Testament -- will one day control what is bought and sold.

Of course, what is being bought and sold is our children's future. According to the Alliance for School Choice, in this year alone eight states "the programs redirected nearly $350 million that would have gone into public budgets to pay for private school scholarships for 129,000 students." Mitt Romney's ideology notwithstanding, education is not (or at least, shouldn't be) a free-market where parents purchase a product called test scores. But if it were, it would be a case of market failure. As Stephanie Mencimer pointed out, the dubious performance and questionable financial practices of charter schools has them in hot water with federal investigators. As the Washington Monthly detailed in April 2008, voucher programs in Cleveland and Milwaukee failed to produce better performance in the private versus public schools. (70 percent of students in the Milwaukee program attend religious institutions.) As the American Prospect reported last year:

In Milwaukee, home of the oldest city voucher program in the country, researchers are in the middle of the five-year study of the program that is expected to shed light on the potential of voucher programs. But three years into the study, results are unimpressive. High school graduation and college enrollment are up 5 percent to 7 percent among voucher recipients, but overall performance between public school and voucher recipient cohorts is virtually the same.

It's no wonder Christopher Lubienski, an education professor at the University of Illinois, concluded that "Romney is on poor empirical ground in making a claim based on competitive effect." But for Mitt Romney, vouchers are all about bashing teachers' unions ("In 2008, the National Education Association spent more money on campaigns than any other organization in the country...and 90% of those funds went to Democrats") and putting public dollars in private pockets (as he did by endorsing the for-profit and Romney-donor Full Sail University).

Even, that is, if Mitt Romney is afraid to say the word "vouchers."

(This piece also appears at Perrspectives.)

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