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Published in Print: March 10, 1999, as Vouchers Take Center Stage During NCSL Finance Seminar

Vouchers Take Center Stage During NCSL Finance Seminar

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Santa Fe, N.M.

This artsy, mountain-fringed state capital was abuzz over vouchers during a school finance seminar held here by the National Conference of State Legislatures late last month.

In the seminar's marquee event, National Education Association President Bob Chase debated Chester E. Finn Jr., the director of the Washington-based Thomas B. Fordham Foundation, on privatization in education.

They quickly turned to the use of publicly funded vouchers that help students pay tuition to attend public schools outside their home districts or private and parochial schools. Such plans are being debated in Florida, New Mexico, Pennsylvania, and Texas.

Mr. Chase said vouchers divert needed money from public schools. And in schools that redeem vouchers, profit replaces education as the bottom line, he contended. "Why spend resources on a few students at the price of many?" he said, especially at a time when public schools are improving.

Mr. Finn countered that public schools are beginning to perform better because of competition from charter schools and the momentum of vouchers.

"The public is looking over its shoulder and seeing what their options look like," he argued. "That can't help but alert public schools."

Both debaters, however, had critical words for institutions they defended.

Mr. Chase said that teacher-evaluation systems in public schools need a lot of work. "Although I was a good teacher, I can count on two hands the number of suggestions I received for improving," he said.

Mr. Finn said private schools aren't as different from traditional public schools as they could be. "They're also subject to foolish ideas," he said, "and I'm disappointed with how little they take advantage of their freedom."

While 150 policymakers from Alaska to New Hampshire attended the Feb. 26-28 conference, New Mexico legislators were conspicuously absent.

As it turned out, they were too wrapped up in a fight over vouchers to attend the NCSL event, which was held a few blocks from the Capitol.

That Saturday, following hours of emotional debate, the House Education Committee blocked a statewide school voucher bill backed by Gov. Gary E. Johnson.

The second-term Republican has pledged to veto the state's $1.5 billion school spending plan if it doesn't include vouchers. The legislative session closes March 20.

With so much going on, Rep. Rick Miera, the Democratic chairman of the House education committee, said he lost track of the NCSL event.

"I didn't even know they were there," he said in an interview. "With only 60 days in the session, I can barely go home. We are swamped."

Americans believe the country's K-12 schools are in crisis, but give good marks to higher education, said John Immerwahr, a senior research fellow with Public Agenda, an opinion-research organization in New York City.

"They don't see people from all over the developed world coming to study in [K-12] schools," he said during a speech here. "Japanese high school students don't come to the United States to study math."

But such images create a double standard that has allowed higher education to avoid the urgent push to improve quality that has characterized K-12 education in recent years, Mr. Immerwahr added.

A majority of Americans believe that most children can learn, he said, and blame K-12 schools when children fail. But if college students fail to learn, the public faults the students, he added.

School spending, when adjusted for inflation, has gone flat in the 1990s, said John G. Augenblick, the president of Augenblick & Myers, a school-finance-consulting firm in Denver. "The trend of dramatic increases in education spending that were true before the 1990s has not been true in the 1990s," he said.

And when it comes to deciding how to spend those funds, he pointed out during a session on finance, states more than ever are trying to link money with results. Unfortunately, he added, the research about what works "is at best confusing and not very specific."

Meanwhile, courts are demanding that states spend money in a way that ensures an adequate education, compared with a more traditional model which stresses spending equity. Mr. Augenblick and other speakers said that few people agree, though, on how to determine adequacy.

So, what's a lawmaker to do?

"The courts want to know there's a rationale," Mr. Augenblick said. "Where you're in trouble is if you don't attempt to define 'adequate.' "

--Robert C. Johnston

Vol. 18, Issue 26, Page 15

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