|Dixie S. Huefner|
Salt Lake Tribune
|Recent op-ed pieces (Flynn, Witte, Tribune, Sept. 30) debated whether Utah's voucher legislation is unconstitutional. Although the arguments are worth understanding, my conclusion is that the judicial outcome is uncertain, both because of ambiguity in the Utah Constitution with respect to what is arguably indirect aid to religious schools and because interpretation of the relevant provisions may well depend on the views of Utah Supreme Court justices.|
Although the anti-voucher legal argument is important, it obscures equally or more important arguments:
1) Siphoning off tax dollars to support private school enrollment not only is an inappropriate use of public money but also siphons off support for the public schools by parents who obviously care deeply about their children's education. It leaves a narrower range of families to advocate for strengthening the public schools. If parents unhappy with the challenges in today's public schools vacate those schools in growing numbers, the public school system will weaken over time.
2) The subsidy, from $500 to $3,000, mostly helps families who can afford to pay a significant portion of the private school tuition. Many of the best private schools cost between $10,000-15,000 a year. If vouchers are meant to help those who cannot afford private schools, they significantly limit the private school choices available to low- and many middle-income families.
3) The provision allocating money to public schools to partially offset the loss of tax dollars for children receiving education vouchers expires after five years.
It is unclear which parents want vouchers in order to remove their child or children from the public schools. Some parents may not be comfortable educating their children alongside so many language and cultural minorities. Some may think that their own religious values are being undermined in today's schools.
These are not good reasons to use public money to subsidize private preferences.
Other parents may determine that their child's instructional needs have not been met by the school. They may have a child who is harassed or bullied by other children, or they may prefer smaller class sizes.
Certainly, private schools have a role in educating children who are not well-served by their public school. But the selection of another public school is also an option for parents who are seeking a more effective school environment for a particular child.
Many excellent public schools exist in Utah. If parents are knowledgeable enough to seek out private education and public money, they are knowledgeable enough to find out how to tap the public school choice options.
Another concern about the voucher legislation is that it will encourage private schools that lack a track record and will not be as instructionally effective as the public schools. Public schools are accountable to the public and must report such matters as drop-out and attendance rates and achievement scores.
They must comply with due process protections and equal protection mandates of the U.S. and state constitutions. The voucher legislation exempts private schools from many such requirements while ironically directing public money to those schools. Also, private schools can reject unsuitable applicants, leaving a higher proportion of more difficult children in the public schools - an undesirable result for the already burdened public system.
If all the energy in time and money spent on supporting private school vouchers went to promoting ongoing professional development of educators; better teacher salaries; more effective, research-based teaching methods; reduced class sizes in grades K-3; and even expanded public preschool responsibilities to level the playing field for entering students, we might have an education system that better meets the needs of all our children.
* DIXIE S. HUEFNER is professor emeritus of special education and special education law at the University of Utah.
Sunday, October 07, 2007
Voucher Issue Heats Up in Utah
From the Salt Lake Tribune: