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Published in Print: February 22, 2006, as Latest Bush Voucher Plan Faces Skepticism

Latest Bush Voucher Plan Faces Skepticism

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A $100 million private-school-voucher plan proposed by President Bush would have to leap several hurdles to become reality, but its supporters hope that recent political advances for their cause and a link to the No Child Left Behind Act will help it avoid defeat this time around.

It remains unclear, though, whether the Bush administration will throw its full weight behind the voucher proposal—something that both proponents and detractors say must happen for the measure to succeed on Capitol Hill.

The proposal, called America’s Opportunity Scholarships for Kids, looks much like the voucher plans that Mr. Bush has proposed for several years in a row, which would have allowed students in low-performing schools to use federal money to attend private schools, charter schools, or higher-performing regular public schools. But this year’s version is more narrowly focused and has a stronger link to the No Child Left Behind Act, saying that only students in schools in the “restructuring” phase of the law would be eligible.

The political boundaries on vouchers, meanwhile, have been pushed further. In 2004, the first federal voucher program got up and running with “opportunity scholarships” for students in District of Columbia schools. Late last year, federal lawmakers approved aid for private schools within a $1.6 billion package to help Gulf Coast schools devastated by Hurricanes Rita and Katrina, as well as schools that have taken in displaced students.

“It’s seen as an acceptable part of the school reform landscape now,” said Joe McTighe, the executive director of the Council for American Private Education, or CAPE, a national umbrella group based in Germantown, Md., that supports the voucher plan. “It’s more mainstream than it once was.”

$4,000 for Tuition

The proposal is part of the president’s fiscal 2007 budget plan, which would reduce overall discretionary spending for the Department of Education. ("President’s Budget Would Cut Education Spending," Feb. 15, 2006.)

Mr. Bush’s new proposal is more detailed than in years past, when requests for a national voucher initiative ranged from $50 million to $75 million. The plan would allow states, school districts, or nonprofit organizations to apply for the federal funding, through a competitive-grant process, to operate a locally-based voucher program. The vouchers would be available to parents of children attending public schools that have been slated for restructuring, meaning they have failed to meet educational goals and have been labeled “in need of improvement” under the No Child Left Behind law for at least four years in a row. Restructuring can entail anything from removing staff members to converting a traditional public school to a charter school.

Parents would receive vouchers worth up to $4,000 toward tuition at secular or religious private schools, or up to $3,000 to pay for tutoring for their children.

Currently, about 1,000 schools nationwide are in the restructuring phase of the No Child Left Behind law, enacted in 2002, said Holly A. Kuzmich, the Department of Education’s deputy assistant secretary for planning, evaluation, and policy development. Restructuring is called for after a school has failed to make adequate yearly progress, or specific educational goals, for six years in a row. Some schools are in restructuring now, based on state accountability systems in operation before the No Child Left Behind Act was signed into law.

The voucher plan would be open only to low-income families; some type of means test, possibly based on enrollment data for free and reduced-price school lunches, would be required, Ms. Kuzmich said.

“We know we have schools out there in … restructuring. It’s real,” she said. “We know we have parents who are saying: ‘This has been long enough. I want other options for my child.’ ”

Blow to Accountability?

But critics of the idea say the Bush administration should focus on making the No Child Left Behind Act work, not sidestep it with a voucher plan.

“The programs already on the books have great potential,” said Cynthia G. Brown, the director of education policy for the Center for American Progress, a liberal-leaning Washington think tank, citing the federal law’s requirements for public school choice and tutoring for students in underperforming schools. “This administration hasn’t done enough on the important reforms that are already in No Child Left Behind.”

The voucher plan would take the law in the wrong direction, said Marc Egan, the director of federal affairs for the National School Boards Association, based in Alexandria, Va. Students who used the voucher money to go to a private school, he said, would then be attending institutions that aren’t held to any of the federal educational standards that the public schools are.

“The wrinkle there is that it’s incomprehensible that private schools could be included without having to face the same accountability that public schools have to face,” Mr. Egan said. “That would undermine a core tenet of the entire law.”

In addition, under the No Child Left Behind Act, students in schools designated for restructuring, among others, are already eligible for tutoring, he said. The law requires that all Title I schools that don’t meet annual educational goals after just three years provide free tutoring for students.

Ms. Kuzmich of the Education Department said that typically about $1,500 to $1,800 is spent on such students for about 40 to 60 hours of tutoring per year under the supplemental education services requirements in NCLB. Under the proposed plan, parents would receive vouchers to bypass the No Child Left Behind law’s existing provision for supplemental education services and spend as much as $3,000 on their own tutoring plan, which could call for an increased number of sessions per week if their child received extra help, she said.

In addition, she said, though private schools are not subject to the No Child Left Behind law’s requirements, the fact that students may have been in struggling public schools for years calls for emergency measures.

“At some point, you have to recognize that kids in that program need immediate assistance,” she said.

Mr. McTighe of CAPE agreed.

“It’s absolutely inexcusable that, in this day and age, a student’s promising future is robbed by a failing school,” he said. “This is more than school choice. This is a chance to move from a school that doesn’t work to one that does.”

But not all private schools would be likely to jump at the chance to enroll students under the federal proposal. Myra McGovern, a spokeswoman for the Washington-based National Association of Independent Schools, which represents about 1,300 private schools, said her group’s members are wary on several fronts.

Though the president’s proposal doesn’t appear to have strings attached, some private schools may worry that that could change. “If you take voucher money, what would the school have to do?” Ms. McGovern said. “It could compromise the educational program.”

Also, she said, private schools may be leery of taking on students who may be several grade levels behind. In addition, Ms. McGovern said $4,000 may not go far toward paying tuition, meaning that a participating private school might have to tap its financial-aid budget to make up the rest.

The median tuition among NAIS members, which include some of the nation’s most elite private schools, is about $15,000 to $16,000 a year, she said. Roman Catholic schools, which would also qualify to accept students under the voucher plan, are typically much more affordable and may be more interested in participating, Ms. Kuzmich said.

The Rev. William F. Davis, the deputy secretary for schools for the Washington-based U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, said his organization supports Mr. Bush’s voucher plan. But the $4,000 ceiling on the voucher aid “could be an issue,” he said. While that amount would likely cover elementary school tuition, he said, average annual tuition at Catholic high schools in the United States is about $7,200.

Under the federal program in Washington, the value of a voucher goes as high as $7,500.

“It’s a problem that you’d have to look at and say, ‘Can I participate in this thing without damaging the financial underpinning of the local school?’ ” Father Davis said.

Viability Doubted

In his proposed budgets for fiscal 2003 through 2006, President Bush called for various forms of a “choice incentive fund,” asking for $50 million to $75 million for the measure, depending on the year. But Congress never provided any money for those proposals, and it’s not likely it will this year, Mr. Egan of the school boards’ association said. “It doesn’t have much chance of passing, because it’s coupled with an overall proposed cut in education funding,” he added. “This is an election year, and politicians who want to get re-elected are not going to want to campaign on cutting public school funds while at the same time sending millions to private schools.”

It’s unclear whether the president himself believes his most recent voucher pitch has any viability. Since Mr. Bush unveiled the plan Feb. 6 in his budget proposal for the fiscal year that begins Oct. 1, he has said next to nothing about it in public speeches, though he has been heavily promoting the mathematics and science initiatives he outlined in his State of the Union Address on Jan. 31.

Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings talked to reporters about the idea the day the budget plan was released, but she hasn’t called much attention to it in public remarks since then.

“This is not politically viable,” Ms. Brown of the Center for American Progress said. “This was tossed off for the conservative base.”

Vol. 25, Issue 24, Pages 32,38

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