Lest anyone doubted that private school vouchers would be front and center in the debate to reauthorize the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB) a leading group of senators and representatives joined U.S. Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings today to announce otherwise. Senators Lamar Alexander (R-TN) and John Ensign (R-NV) and Representatives Howard “Buck” McKeon (R-CA), who chairs the House Education and the Workforce Committee, and Sam Johnson (R-TX), introduced legislation today to establish a national voucher program proposed by President Bush in his FY2007 budget request to Congress.
Although the House Appropriations Committee voted last month to provide no money for the program and the Senate Appropriations Committee is expected to do likewise this week, the introduction of legislation to establish the program is a new front in the battle to create vouchers on a broader scale. The president has requested between $50 million and $100 million for voucher programs in each budget he has sent to Congress but lawmakers have refused to go along. NSBA opposes private school vouchers.
The new legislation is linked to NCLB as it would offer vouchers worth up to $4,000 per student for students in public schools identified for “restructuring” because of not making “Adequate Yearly Progress” in NCLB. Although public school performance under NCLB would serve as the trigger for the voucher, private schools would be eligible to receive taxpayer dollars without facing equal public accountability.
Asked point blank today about the bill’s chances in a Congressional session whose days are rapidly dwindling, Chairman McKeon said he does not see the measure passing this year but that proponents are looking ahead to NCLB’s reauthorization, scheduled for next year.
New NAEP study generates talk
Meanwhile, the public release last Friday of a new U.S. Department of Education study examining public and private school students’ math and reading scores on the 2003 NAEP continues to generate heat, and reporters at today’s voucher press conference wanted to know more. The study found that after controlling for socioeconomic and demographic factors public school students perform about evenly with private school students. Specifically, public school students outperformed private school pupils by a statistically significant margin on 4th grade math, were outperformed by private school pupils by a statistically signficant margin on 8th grade reading, and performed about equally to private school students on 4th grade reading and 8th grade math. The new findings build on 2005 research showing public schools outperforming private schools when student/family characteristics are considered.
The findings also undercut an underlying argument for vouchers that private schools, simply by being private, are superior to public schools. Sensing that, and apparently quite unhappy with a Wall Street Journal article headlined “Long-Delayed Education Study Casts Doubt on Value of Vouchers,” top voucher advocates have responded swiftly, attempting to downplay the study.
Among the arguments put forth by detractors of the study is that public schools outspend private schools and that may have something to do with the difference in achievement. Seriously. Voucher advocates are actually raising the issue of spending on education possibly having an impact on student achievement. Spending on private school education anyway.
This whole flare up over NAEP scores has an eerily similar feel to it, as well as the interesting arguments by common critics of traditional public schools. Remember the great charter school NAEP brouhaha from two years ago? Refresh your memory here.
Seems to us that the bottom line is actually a pretty simple one. Schools, be they traditional public, public charter, private or religious, all come in different flavors. Some are excellent, some are good, some are just plain okay, and some are lousy. But the country’s primary responsibility is to ensure that the public schools, open to all students and which for decades have educated 90 percent of the nation’s students, are as good as they possibly can be. Divesting in them by channeling public dollars to private schools that do not accept all students and are not publicly accountable is counterproductive.