Vouchers place public and private schools in unfair competition
By WILLIAM P. HOJNACKI
6:02 AM EDT, March 18, 2012
Indiana's new school voucher program is not complicated. With certain income restrictions based on a sliding scale, it allows current public school students who enroll in state-certified private schools to receive a voucher of up to $4,500 to help cover the cost of attending these schools.
Supporters of the voucher program contend that Indiana is awash with "failing" and marginally effective schools that too many students are forced to attend. The voucher program, they argue, gives low-and moderate-income families the same choice that wealthy families already have of sending their kids to either a local public school or a private one.
Opponents of the voucher program say that it will have a negative impact on the quality of public schools, not because vouchers are in-themselves evil, but because of the way the program is financed. It will, they argue, over time, drain vital resources from public school systems that are already under pressure to reduce their budgets.
The issue is that vouchers are funded by extracting money on a per-student basis from the school districts from which the affected students matriculate; i.e., if a student from South Bend receives a voucher to attend a private school, up to $4,500 will be deducted from the South Bend Community School Corp. budget and given to that student.
Many opponents do not have any particular objection to using public funds to, in a limited way, support private schools. Government has a long history of supporting various private endeavors including the G-I Bill of Rights "voucher" program that allowed millions of veterans to attend the college of their choice.
There is, however, an issue with robbing Peter to pay Paul. Public school systems are fundamentally different from private schools and they should not be in competition with each other for the same pot of taxpayer dollars. If the state chooses to fund vouchers it should be done with a totally separate budget appropriation and it should not be administered by the state Department of Public Instruction.
The mission of public school districts is to provide educational services to local communities. They need to be as inclusive as possible. They all must offer a very broad range of opportunities to every single student who lives within that district. They do not have the option of deciding who should or should not attend or who can stay and who must leave. They must provide a program for every student.
The one thing that public and private schools do have in common is the requirement to offer a core curriculum of English, math, science and social studies. But, unlike private schools public schools must also offer more: programs in visual and performing arts, vocational and technical training, and special education. Many also offer English as a second language and most offer programs for gifted and talented students. Some offer adult education programs as well.
Private schools are by definition private with their own individual missions and they have no obligation to be comprehensive. Beyond their core curriculum they can teach (or not teach) whatever they choose. More importantly, they get to choose who gets admitted to their particular school and who gets to stay.
The vast majority of Indiana school districts offer a wide range of high-quality academic programs and they do as well or better than private schools in educating kids who bring a lot to the classroom; average intelligence or above, a stable and supportive family and a desire to succeed.
Public schools also do well with children with special needs and with students who have a vocational or technical, rather than an academic orientation.
Public schools do less well with "at-risk" students; those who have limited academic abilities or who come from dysfunctional non-supportive families. But, so do private schools. While there are some notable exceptions, most private schools will not even admit students of this ilk. The private schools that have had success in dealing with at-risk kids are invariably schools that are able to concentrate a substantial amount of resources on a relatively small number of students. Public schools should be so lucky.
To be sure there are potentially good students in public schools who are being shortchanged. There is, at the same time, no shortage of proposals on how to deal with the challenges these students face. The majority of these proposals feature innovative teaching techniques, smaller classes and more intensive use of technology. Most of these proposals are also costly.
Many factors contribute to low levels of student achievement. Many experts would argue that although school organization and administration can be an issue, the major culprit is usually a community's demographic characteristics. Schools that serve low-income neighborhoods invariably have a higher proportion of students who do not do well on standardized tests than student from middle- or upper-income neighborhoods. This disparity can be overcome but it will take time, commitment and money.
In the meantime, public schools must continue to do what they have always done which is, even in these difficult economic times, to offer comprehensive educational opportunities to each and every student in their district. In this respect, public schools serve a different purpose than private schools and thus are not in competition with them.
Public support of private education has a long history in America. It is part of our social fabric, but the decision to divert funds from public schools to private schools is based on a misguided understanding of the role of public school systems. Going forward, if public schools districts are to improve they will need greater community support and an increased, rather than a decreased, level of resources.
William P. Hojnacki is a professor emeritus at Indiana University South Bend, where he served as the campus dean of the School of Public and Environmental Affairs from 1983 to 2002, and is a South Bend resident. He served on the South Bend Community School Corp. Board of Trustees from 1997 to 2005.
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