School Voucher Debate Heats Back Up

May 6, 2011
Originally published on May 6, 2011 7:46 pm

The state of Indiana has approved one of the country's most extensive school voucher programs.

Republican Gov. Mitch Daniels says vouchers will level the playing field for Indiana students.

Some are hoping this and other efforts will push vouchers into the educational mainstream. However, concerns about costs are reining in the passion for vouchers in many areas. And most states still face constitutional prohibitions that bar the use of public funds for religious schools.

Just The Start

The Indiana voucher program will take state support of private education into new territory: the middle class. These programs are typically available only to low-income or disabled students, but Ohio's plan will give some public support to families earning as much as $61,000 a year.

Robert Enlow, head of the Foundation for Educational Choice, says this is just the start. He wants to see vouchers available for everyone regardless of income.

"I think we should be looking at a system of education in America, that funds the child wherever they want to go," he says. "Regardless of the school system that we have in front of us."

That notion does not sit well with some who have crusaded for vouchers as a tool for addressing poverty.

"I oppose universal vouchers," says Howard Fuller, former head of the Milwaukee schools. "I always have; I always will."

Income Limits Vs. Number Limits

Milwaukee schools were home to the nation's first voucher program. Fuller now teaches at Marquette University and is warily eyeing a proposal by another Republican governor, Scott Walker of Wisconsin. Walker's plan would expand Milwaukee's existing voucher program to include higher income brackets.

"We didn't fight for this in order for people with means to get a voucher from the state," Fuller says. "We fought for this because low-income and working-class people are the people who are forced to stay in schools that do not work for their children."

While some voucher supporters are taking aim at income limits, others are going after the numerical limits on many programs. Ohio Gov. John Kasich wants to expand his state's plan from 14,000 to 56,000 students.

Chester Finn of the Fordham Foundation, an education think tank, says families have been clamoring for these programs to grow.

"Milwaukee is at capacity. Ohio is at capacity with its current program, with these various limits on it," Finn says. "More people want in than are allowed in under the caps and the ceilings."

Jodi Timmerman of Toledo, Ohio, has two of her three children in a parochial school thanks to what Ohio calls the Educational Choice Scholarship. She describes the public schools her children would have attended as large and scary.

"I know the classrooms are pretty crowded," she says. "But at St. Pius they're not, so we're happy about that. It's a smaller environment."

Are Vouchers Effective?

Researchers continue to argue over whether voucher programs boost achievement.

The expansion under way now may give those analysts more information, since voucher programs have been relatively limited in size, isolated in pockets across the country.

Washington, D.C.'s on-again, off-again program is being revived, thanks to a vote in Congress. And Douglas County, Colo. — known for high-achieving schools — just authorized its first voucher program.

Wendy Vogel, a parent in Highlands Ranch, Colo., says the promise of a $4,500 voucher will just encourage people to go private, even if their public schools are doing fine.

"I think that its gonna be people who [think] 'OK wow, now I can have a private school education mostly paid for, partially paid for, so I might as well do it,' " she says.

Vogel points out that her county's voucher program comes as Colorado schools are facing huge budget cuts. That means each voucher student will exacerbate the shortfall by taking money away from public education.

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MELISSA BLOCK, Host:

The state of Indiana has approved one of the country's most extensive school voucher programs. Republican Governor Mitch Daniels signed the bill yesterday. He says vouchers will level the playing field for Indiana students.

G: It means social justice has come to Indiana education. It means that the ability to choose a school that a parent believes is best for their child's future, is no longer limited to the wealthy.

BLOCK: As NPR's Larry Abramson reports, some are hoping this, and other efforts, will push vouchers into the educational mainstream.

LARRY ABRAMSON: Robert Enlow, head of the Foundation for Educational Choice, says this is just the start. He wants to see vouchers available for everyone, regardless of income.

BLOCK: So I think we should be looking at a system of education in America that funds the child wherever they want to go, regardless of the school system that we have in front of us.

ABRAMSON: That notion does not sit well with some who have crusaded for vouchers as a tool for addressing poverty.

P: I oppose universal vouchers. I always have, and I always will.

ABRAMSON: Howard Fuller used to be head of the Milwaukee schools, home to the nation's first voucher program. He now teaches at Marquette University. He is eyeing warily a proposal by another Republican governor, Scott Walker of Wisconsin. It would expand Milwaukee's existing voucher program to include higher-income brackets.

P: Why did we fight for this? We didn't fight for this in order for people with means to get a voucher from the state. We fought for this because low-income and working class people are the people who are forced to stay in schools that do not work for their children.

ABRAMSON: Chester Finn of the Fordham Foundation, an education think tank, says families have been clamoring for these programs to grow.

BLOCK: Milwaukee is at capacity. Ohio is at capacity with its current program, with these various limits on it. More people want in than are allowed in under the caps and the ceilings. Yeah, we're going to see some expansion, for sure.

ABRAMSON: Jodi Timmerman of Toledo, Ohio, has two of her three children in a parochial school, thanks to what Ohio calls the Educational Choice Scholarship. She describes the public schools her children would have attended as large and scary.

BLOCK: And I know the classrooms are pretty crowded. But at St. Pius, they're not. So that's very - we're very happy about that. It's a smaller environment.

ABRAMSON: Wendy Vogel, a parent in Highlands Ranch, Colorado, says the promise of a $4,500 voucher will just encourage people to go to private schools, even if their public schools are doing fine.

BLOCK: I think that it's going to be people who - OK, wow, now I can have a private-school education mostly paid for or partially paid for, so I might as well do it.

ABRAMSON: Larry Abramson, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.