January 1999: The Oklahoman

Choice Challenging Schools’ Status Quo

BYLINE: Bobby Ross Jr., Staff Writer

SECTION: NEWS; Pg. 1

LENGTH: 2282 words

Without financial help, Andrea Johnson never could afford to
send her sons to True Vine Christian School.
A private scholarship program, benefiting families who qualify
for food stamps, covers half her sons’ tuition. Still, the
northeast Oklahoma City woman struggles to pay her share: $ 162.50 a
month.
She’s willing to sacrifice for a school where Brandon, 14, and
Braylon, 10, can pray, study the Bible and learn without fear of
violence or gangs.
“Without a firm foundation, your kids don’t stand a chance in
society now, with gangs and all of that,” said the mother, 32, who
also has an 11-week-old baby, Andrew.
Johnson and her husband, Jerry, consider their family fortunate.
For most Oklahomans in their situation, private school is not an
option.
But could that soon change?

Church/State Question
Bolstered by a recent U.S. Supreme Court decision, some
Oklahomans want the Legislature to make a radical change.
How radical?
They want the state to pay for all children’s educations,
regardless of whether the students attend public, private or even
religious schools.
If passed by state lawmakers – and that’s a big if – school
vouchers would give parents tax dollars to send their children to
any school.
In a nation that cherishes separation of church and state, talk
of publicly funded religious schools stirs emotional debate.
“School vouchers are just another way that the religious right
wing is attempting to destroy our school system,” said Everett
Ernst, 54, a Democrat who lives in Oklahoma City.
Indeed, the 35,000-member Oklahoma Christian Coalition is
pushing for vouchers.
But Kenneth Wood, the coalition’s executive director, said the
only motive is fairness.
The way Wood sees it, every child already has a full-paid
scholarship to receive an education.
“Right now, they can only use the scholarship at one designated
school,” Wood said.
In a voucher system, parents could spend the scholarship at any
school they choose.
“You can’t discriminate against religious institutions,” Wood
said. “I think that is where the real violation of the Constitution
takes place.
“If you have a family of strong faith, and they want to educate
their children with those same values and beliefs, they should have
that ability.”
What do Americans think about allowing students and parents to
choose a private school at public expense?
Last fall, a Phi Delta Kappa/Gallup Poll found 44 percent in
favor and 50 percent opposed. The rest were undecided.
However, when the question was phrased differently, 51 percent
of Americans said they favored allowing parents to send school-age
children to any public, private or church-related school if the
“government pays all or part of the tuition.” Forty-five percent
were opposed.

Positive Signal?
In November, the Supreme Court declined to hear constitutional
challenges to Milwaukee’s voucher program.
The nation’s only other publicly funded voucher program is in
Cleveland, where the Ohio Supreme Court is reviewing constitutional
issues.
Both programs serve low-income, inner-city students.
The high court’s refusal to review the Wisconsin case carries no
legal precedent.
However, the decision “makes it even more likely that the
voucher battle will be fought in the political arena,” not the
courtroom. So wrote Benjamin Dowling-Sendor, a North Carolina
school law expert who opposes vouchers, in this month’s American
School Board Journal.
In light of the Wisconsin case, the voucher issue has gained
political steam.
“We are very optimistic about the prospects for voucher
legislation this year,” said attorney Matthew Berry with the
Washington, D.C.-based Institute for Justice, which handles
school-choice cases.
“We think there are excellent opportunities to pass school
choice in a number of states, most notably Florida and Pennsylvania
and Texas.”
The Institute for Justice defended Milwaukee’s voucher program
before the Wisconsin Supreme Court.
State justices ruled that since the vouchers had a secular
purpose – and did not advance religion as their primary effect -
they were constitutional. Milwaukee’s vouchers are awarded based on
neutral, secular criteria and neither favor nor disfavor religion,
the justices found.
The National Education Association and the American Civil
Liberties Union appealed, but the U.S. Supreme Court let the state
ruling stand.
“Many states have interpreted it as a positive signal that
school choice is constitutional, that they may proceed with their
efforts to give educational opportunities to low-income children,”
Berry said.

Oklahoma Debate
When the legislative session starts Feb. 1, Oklahoma lawmakers
will debate school-choice issues ranging from parent-run charter
schools to open transfers between public school districts.
No school-choice issue, though, inflames the public – or the
politicians – like vouchers do.
Savior for the poor or welfare for the rich? Needed competition
for a government monopoly or a move to destroy public education?
God-given choice for all taxpayers or an unconstitutional mingling
of public dollars and religious entities? So goes the debate.
It’s a fight that pits the Oklahoma Christian Coalition against
the Oklahoma State School Boards Association – and Republican Gov.
Frank Keating against the Democrat-controlled Legislature.
“We really plan to make a big push this year,” said Wood, the
Oklahoma Christian Coalition director. “We really hope to see
educational choices open up and expand in Oklahoma.”
But the Oklahoma State School Boards Association is waging war
against any form of vouchers.
Dozens, if not hundreds, of school boards statewide have passed
resolutions opposing vouchers.
Vouchers would rob public schools of funding, the resolutions
claim.
“We plan to do everything we can to warn the public about the
dangers of vouchers,” said Bob Mooneyham, the school boards
association’s executive director.
Oklahoma’s public school funding ranks 47th among the states,
Mooneyham said. “So, we don’t have a large margin for error in
terms of funding,” he said.
While supporters say vouchers would help poor children trapped
in bad schools, he fears vouchers mainly would reimburse
middle-income families who already spend money on private
education. That would drain funds from the public schools, he said.
“There’s a lot of people that support the idea of choice,”
Mooneyham said. “If the parent is willing to pay that extra money
(for private school), that’s fine. That’s the ultimate choice.”
Keating said he will push – again – for limited vouchers.
His proposal would provide an escape for students in Oklahoma’s
worst-performing schools, he said.
The governor said he sympathizes with Oklahomans who want
vouchers for everyone.
“Realistically, this Legislature in its best days might consider
public school choice, and in a stretch, vouchers from the
worst-performing schools,” Keating said.
“So far, this Legislature has been hostile even to public school
choice, much less vouchers.”
To the contrary, House Speaker Loyd Benson said the Democrats
support school choice. Their plan includes charter schools, which
were defeated two years ago. Charter schools are autonomous public
schools that free organizers from many government rules and
regulations.
As for vouchers?
“If you’re talking about taking public money and allowing people
to use it for private education, without private schools having any
obligation to take all kinds of students, I’m opposed to it,” said
Benson, D-Frederick.

Not Clear-Cut
On a national level, the voucher issue defies clear-cut
conservative/liberal and Democratic/Republican divisions, as
typified by the many inner-city blacks and Hispanics who support
vouchers.
“As a parent who has a child in Oklahoma City schools, it does
not take a rocket scientist to realize that some schools in my area
are substandard,” said used-car dealer Johnnie Young, a black
Democrat whose son, Johnnie Jr., attends Moon Middle School.
Vouchers could give inner- city children access to the quality
of education offered in suburban districts and private schools,
Young said.
But many conservatives, including Brandon Dutcher, a frequently
quoted critic of Oklahoma public schools, oppose vouchers. They
fear government money could bring government strings.
“We’d hate to see private schools corrupted and sort of lured
onto the plantation by this offer of free money,” said Dutcher,
Oklahoma Council of Public Affairs research director.
At the federal level, U.S. Rep. J.C. Watts, R-Norman, has fought
for vouchers to benefit low-income areas. But U.S. Rep. Jesse
Jackson Jr., D-Ill., told an anti-voucher rally recently that the
same folks who wanted to close public schools after desegregation
“have changed the name, but the game is still the same.”
Last summer, President Clinton vetoed a $ 7 million plan to offer
2,000 District of Columbia students vouchers worth up to $ 3,200
each.
In the November general election, Colorado voters soundly
defeated a state constitutional amendment that would have launched
the nation’s most far-reaching program of public support for
families placing children in private or parochial schools.
In Edgewood, Texas, outside San Antonio, the privately funded
Children’s Educational Opportunity Foundation is providing $ 50
million in vouchers to poor children, hoping to prove private
schools can educate students better than struggling public ones.
The Oklahoman asked readers earlier this month to share their
views on tax-funded vouchers. About 300 readers responded by
telephone, e-mail and letter.
Most indicated support for vouchers, but arguments were
passionate on both sides.
“Some of the things that are being taught in today’s public
schools are an outrage, and I would never allow my children to be a
part of such things,” said voucher supporter Keith Frutiger of
Edmond.
“Not only is the curriculum struggling, the morals, values and
beliefs that are being bestowed upon our children are quite
pitiful.”
But Judy Sing of Macomb opposes vouchers.
“Something needs to be done, but vouchers are not the solution,”
Sing said. “By using them, we are admitting we supply lousy
education to some.
“Why not improve the education for everybody? All kids deserve
it.”

Fair Competition?
Andrea Johnson contemplated sending her son Brandon to one of
Oklahoma City’s public middle schools.
The idea terrified her.
A former school cafeteria worker, Johnson said she knows what
happens to children caught in the gang culture.
“Baggy britches and all that become a part of their lifestyles -
even good kids,” she said.
Private school became an option when she heard about the
Oklahoma Scholarship Fund.
Last year, the private fund awarded 50 scholarships to
low-income families. An additional 450 families applied for
scholarships, but funds were not available.
“I get calls every day, but there’s more demand than we can
help,” said Della Sebring, Oklahoma Scholarship Fund executive
director.
Oklahoma taxpayers spent $ 4,306 per child in the public schools
in 1996-97, the last year for which state Education Department
figures are available.
But taxpayers who don’t consider the public schools an option
must pay again for private school tuition or to home-school their
children.
Why not infuse the public school system with competition – and
let students “vote with their feet,” as Keating puts it?
Competition would be fine, said Wewoka High School Principal
Steve Knight – if it were fair competition.
“They can shut their doors when they’re full; we can’t,” Knight
said. “If the playing field were level, I would be the first one to
sign up for school vouchers. But the truth is, it is not level.”
In a column titled “Who’s Afraid of Competition?” Kay Floyd
wrote about vouchers in this month’s Oklahoma School Board Journal.
Floyd is the school boards association’s board development and
governance director.
“Could it be that the people who actually fear competition …
are the private school operators?” she wrote.
“After all, those private schools might just go out of business
because they charge tuition and must compete for students with
schools that offer a free and appropriate education to every child.”
Private schools must convince people public schools are failing
so they can find people to pay increasing tuitions, she suggested.
But Putnam City School Board member Melinda Johnson has a
different perspective on vouchers.
The Putnam City board recently voted 3-2 to oppose vouchers. But
Johnson and fellow board member Sue Sullivan refused to support the
anti-voucher resolution.
Johnson, who teaches in the Midwest City-Del City School
District, said people accuse public educators of hiding behind
inferior schools.
“I couldn’t disagree with that statement more,” she said.
“Bring it on, folks. You can’t beat what we’ve got to offer.”

Happy Mom
Andrea Johnson couldn’t be happier with the choice she made.
Brandon is making straight A’s and is a leader on the True Vine
Christian basketball team. Braylon, who has a learning disability,
is progressing at a proper pace.
“My kids know more about the Bible than I do,” the Paradise
Baptist Church member said.
“I wanted that religious aspect to the school. If they get it
while they’re young, they won’t forget. Even when they get older,
they won’t forget.”

Vouchers Await Final Grade Inner-City Choice Important, Supporters Say

BYLINE: Bobby Ross Jr., Staff Writer

SECTION: NEWS; Pg. 1

LENGTH: 1337 words

As the superintendent of Milwaukee’s 100,000-student public
school system, Howard Fuller advocated vouchers.
Now a Marquette University education professor, the prominent
black leader remains an outspoken supporter.
Vouchers let students choose any public, private or
church-related school – at taxpayer expense.
“For me, quite honestly, it has always been an empowerment
issue,” said Fuller, who directs Marquette University’s Institute
for the Transformation of Learning.
“No. 1, I want to give poor parents the same opportunity to
choose what’s best for their children that those of us who have
money can.”
On the other hand, Milwaukee’s public schools will lose up to
$ 24 million this year to fund 6,200 voucher students, many of whom
never attended a public school, said Sam Carmen, Milwaukee Teachers
Education Association executive director.
“We think it’s bad public policy because it reflects the
attitude that the public school system can be abandoned, and it
winds up pitting public schools against private schools on an
uneven playing field,” Carmen said.
“The overriding concern for us… is that there is absolutely no
accountability built into the statute.”
Private schools that accept vouchers don’t have to give state
achievement tests, don’t have to follow anti-discrimination laws
and don’t have to account for their finances, he said.

Lessons For Oklahoma
For clues on how Gov. Frank Keating’s voucher proposal might
work, Oklahomans can look to Milwaukee and Cleveland, Ohio.
Keating is pushing the Legislature to approve vouchers for
Oklahoma’s worst-performing public schools.
For poor children stuck in substandard schools, vouchers could
be an academic – and even physical – savior, the Republican
governor said.
“If you can save one child, that’s a tremendous achievement,”
Keating said.
But by saving one child, Keating’s plan might condemn many more,
opponents fear.
“I have an uncomfortable vision of public schools left only with
children with disabilities, children of parents who do not care if,
or where, their children attend and children who have been kicked
out of all the private schools,” said Nancy Barnes, an Oklahoma
City resident.
For now, Milwaukee and Cleveland boast the nation’s only
state-funded voucher programs.
In each case, frustration over failing inner-city schools
launched vouchers.
In each case, the programs let low-income parents use tax money
to send their children to any school.
In each case, many questions persist.
Do the most needy students truly benefit from vouchers? Do
vouchers lead to significant student achievement gains? Does
competition from vouchers spur public schools to improve?

Dueling Professors
Milwaukee’s voucher program gives low-income parents up to
$ 5,000 per year for private or parochial schooling.
To qualify, the family income must be less than 175 percent of
the federal poverty level, about $ 26,000 for a family of four.
That guarantees voucher recipients are poor. But does it mean
the most needy students benefit?
Parents who bother to seek vouchers are better educated, more
involved in their children’s education and have higher expectations
for their children than most poor parents, critics argue.
Those factors skew any comparison of the voucher students’
performance with the children left behind in public schools,
opponents claim.
Jay Greene, a University of Texas government professor, said a
study he and his colleagues conducted proved that argument wrong.
Their study compared the voucher students to students who did
not win the “lottery” for private school admission.
The researchers said the nonselected students represented a
random pick of students with comparable demographics.
Their finding?
“By the end of four years of participation, the voucher
students’ standardized test scores were significantly higher than
students who did not get into the program by chance,” Greene said.
A choice advocate, Greene has studied privately funded voucher
programs in Washington, D.C., Edgewood, Texas, and Dayton, Ohio.
Two other studies of the Milwaukee program came to different
conclusions.
A study by University of Wisconsin-Madison professor John Witte
concluded the students attending the private schools showed no
significant gain from Milwaukee public school students.
Meanwhile, Princeton University professor Cecilia Rouse
concluded the voucher students did perform significantly better in
math, but not in reading.

Report Cards
Another debate rages over whether the voucher system has caused
Milwaukee’s public schools to improve.
Fuller argues so.
Last week, the city teachers union settled its contract before
its expiration, for the first time in 30 years. The union relented
on some issues concerning seniority and teacher assignments.
“There’s no way … this would have occurred without the kind of
pressure that now exists because of choice and charters in
Milwaukee,” Fuller said.
Not so, Carmen said.
“We’re doing it because our teachers have told us it makes sense
to have our teachers working cooperatively in buildings,” he said.
As for improvements in the public schools, “There are some
positives going on,” Carmen said. But he gives vouchers no credit.
Instead, he cites a new superintendent who has “slowly, but surely,
started building confidence in the system.”

Audit and Achievement
Cleveland’s program provides tuition vouchers of as much as
$ 2,500 for 3,000 youngsters who attend nearly 60 religious and
nonsectarian schools.
The experiment was envisioned as an alternative for people
concerned about the city school system’s high dropout rate and low
student test scores.
Earlier this month, the Ohio Department of Education pledged to
conduct an in-depth analysis of Cleveland’s voucher program. The
promise came after a special audit gave the program low marks for
management.
The state auditor found lax oversight of rules regarding
residency and said the program consistently overpaid taxi companies
providing transportation to students enrolled in the program.
On the academic side, a recent study indicated second-year
Cleveland voucher students did significantly better than public
school students on language tests.
But voucher and public school students did about the same in
most other courses.
The year before, the same researchers found no significant
achievement gains by first-year voucher students.
It’s too early to explain the latest findings, said Kim Metcalf,
the Indiana University education professor directing the ongoing
study.
“It may very well be a one-year sort of blip on the screen,”
Metcalf said.
“On the other hand, it is possible that this is the beginning of
a trend, that the longer those children are in the voucher program,
the more it may influence their achieve- ment.”

A Long Walk?
As Oklahomans contemplate vouchers, Keating has said he supports
letting children “vote with their feet” – by choosing the school
that best meets their needs.
Critics of the governor’s voucher plan question whether he means
that literally: His proposal makes no arrangements for student
transportation.
Finding a ride to a better school across town could be difficult
for many poor children, said Andrea Guynn, who teaches fourth grade
at Putnam City’s Northridge Elementary.
“Many of them come from working families for which a 30-minute
drive across town twice a day would be an impossibility,” Guynn
said.
But in a debate filled with emotional arguments, researcher
Metcalf prefers to sit back and wait.
He’ll withhold a verdict until later.
“I think if we view vouchers as experiment and treat them as
such and try to learn from them, I think they can be very
valuable,” said Metcalf, a former classroom teacher.
“Unfortunately, the rhetoric and the passion get in the way
sometimes on both sides.”

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