Time for experimenting with school vouchers is past…

Posted: December 12, 2012 in Editorial Comments

By MARY DUTY
Trib Board of Contributors
Tuesday December 11, 2012

American leaders have long been concerned about the education of their children. In a 1787 letter to James Madison, Thomas Jefferson wrote that, “Above all things, I hope the education of the common people will be attended to.” He believed our status as a free nation depended on it. He was convinced that a strong public school system is the very foundation of our republican form of government.

He was right. This common education is the glue that holds us together. Now, sadly, such education is under assault.

Next month when the Legislature convenes in Austin, there will be much talk of proposals for tax dollars to be given to private and church-related schools as an alternative to public education. These voucher advocates have wrapped vouchers in pretty new packaging. Tuition vouchers are now called “taxpayer savings grants.” At last summer’s hearings of the Senate Education Committee, testimony estimated these grants would save Texas taxpayers $3 billion over the first two years of implementation.

Sounds good, right?

Wrong. I teach social studies, not math, but one thing I know is that if these taxpayer grants are going to save Texans $3 billion, someone somewhere is going to pay the price. How much will these “grants” cost our children?

It’s ironic that during recent political campaigns politicians routinely called our children the “future of Texas.” Lawmakers often say these are the young Texans who need to be prepared to compete on a global stage with 21st-century skills.

Yet only recently a judge hearing the Texas school finance court case voiced a concern that children from Texas would have to compete with children from various other European nations, including Latvia. Latvia? I did a little research. As a teacher, I would love to have a Latvian class size. Their student-to-teacher ratio is 11-to-1. Latvian politicians understand the importance of class size. We don’t.

The Legislature last session slashed $5.4 billion from public education in Texas. Class sizes exploded. Support from Austin to prepare for new high-stakes tests was cut. School districts lost many of the tools we needed to be successful. School boards all over Texas were forced to make tough decisions about teacher layoffs, fine arts programs and class sizes — even going to the point of consolidation and closing some neighborhood schools.

We must remember the devil is in the details on these proposals. Here are several points every taxpayer in Texas must be aware of: If these grants are passed, tax dollars will go to all sorts of private and parochial schools. Our tax dollars would support classical Christian and Jewish schools. Funds could just as likely support a Wiccan school or a Muslim school.

A couple of years ago, I asked several of Waco’s private schools how they felt about vouchers. Most told me they would have rejected state voucher students. They didn’t want the government regulations and rules fiscal conservatism demands. Also, vouchers cover only a portion of private school tuition. It will not cover costs for free or reduced-cost lunches, books, fees or uniforms. Vouchers are not written to cover the enormous transportation costs of getting children from home to their school of choice and back.

We learned a bitter lesson with the initial charter schools in Texas some years back. Yes, some did wonderful work. But without financial oversight, millions of our tax dollars were squandered. Children’s futures were stolen. We do not have the luxury of experimenting further with voucher plans that show little if any academic gains. In fact, our children would benefit more from an experiment that was run in Milwaukee a generation ago. Along with their voucher schools, authorities tracked similar students in a school where the only difference was a reduction of class size. Reduction in class size worked. Some 22 years later, these Milwaukee voucher schools still show statistically insignificant gains.

I have studied voucher schemes across the nation since the early 1990s as a volunteer for the Texas PTA. What I have said since then holds true today: Let’s invest in the Texas public schools that educate more than 90 percent of the children in Texas. Let’s use the choice models such as magnet schools, charter schools and transfers, and leave the experimentation to our science classrooms.

We just don’t have the luxury of experimenting with the future of an entire generation of Texas children.

Local businesswoman Mary Duty is a social studies teacher in Tennyson Middle School’s ATLAS Academy.

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