Get ready for vouchers to rear their ugly heads in the Arizona legislature once again. Except this time when they propose the idea of taking tax dollars away from public schools to pay for private school tuition, they won’t be calling it “vouchers.” They’ll be using a market-tested phrase that would make any Madison Avenue ad exec proud: “School choice.”
See, the pro-voucher crowd has a problem. People don’t like what they’re selling. In poll after poll, private school vouchers go down 60 percent to 40 percent. And no voucher plan has ever been approved by voters. The last ballot initiative was in 2007 in Utah, a conservative state where supporters thought they would win easily. They were wrong; 62 percent of Utah voters said no to vouchers.
So you won’t be hearing the “V” word this time around. Instead, you’ll be hearing about the glories of “school choice.” Don’t be fooled by the shiny new packaging. It’s the same old voucher scheme by another name.
Vouchers are a bad idea in any economic climate, but they’re a catastrophe right now with public education funding already cut to the bone. Class sizes are way up. Teachers are being laid off. Students are using old, out-of-date textbooks. Parents are being asked to pay for classroom supplies because schools are so hard pressed, they can’t even afford enough paper for their copy machines. Could there be a worse time to drain still more money from public schools to pay rich kids’ private school tuition?
But, voucher advocates say, private schools are better than public schools. The problem is, that’s just not true. You don’t have to take my word for it. You can look up two extensive studies done by the Department of Education during the Bush administration. Bush was a big voucher supporter, and his people thought the studies would show how good private schools are. To their surprise, they found there was no measurable difference in achievement between students in traditional public schools, charter schools and private schools. Similar students had similar scores on standardized tests no matter which type of school they attended. A number of other studies have arrived at the same conclusion.
So much for the “private schools are better” argument.
And if you believe government should keep its nose out of people’s religion, there is another problem with taxpayers footing the bill for private school tuition. In Arizona and across the nation, 80 percent of private schools are religious. Public funding of religious education is a bad idea, pure and simple. On top of that, it’s unconstitutional in Arizona. Another 36 states have similar constitutional prohibitions against state funding of religion.
Does all this mean I’m against school choice? Absolutely not. People can choose to send their children to private schools, just not on the public’s dime. And I’m a big supporter of “public school choice,” which is alive and well in Arizona.
If parents don’t want to send their children to the neighborhood public school, they have a host of other choices. Their children can attend other district schools, especially magnet schools, which pride themselves on their open enrollment. Parents can also send their children to schools in other districts. Arizona law allows students to attend schools in any district where classroom space is available.
And if parents don’t like any of the traditional schools in their area, they can choose to send their children to charter schools. Yes, charters are free public schools. Most of them aren’t connected to school districts and they have little government oversight, but they are chartered and funded by the state. Think of them as a hybrid between traditional public schools and private schools.
The pro-voucher crowd is trying to sell you a bill of goods when they equate the lovely sounding “school choice” with vouchers. It’s deceptive advertising of the worst kind. Don’t be taken in.
Dave Safier is a regular contributor to Blog for Arizona.