Wednesday, January 24, 2007

A Commentary on School Vouchers

This was in today's deseret morning news....

Proponents of private school vouchers have seized the rhetorical high ground, using terms like "equal opportunity" and "parental choice" to justify their efforts. The Deseret Morning News has apparently been dazzled by this doublespeak.
Let us set the record straight.
Salt Lake City School District supports both universal excellence and public school choice. We offer a variety of programs, philosophies, and instructional strategies. Twenty-five percent of our students exercise meaningful choice, enrolling in schools outside their residence area. We are proud of our ability to use data to drive instruction, our menu of effective interventions, and the pathways we have built for advanced learners.
Our committed public educators have much in common with talented teachers in private schools. We do not blame parents who think vouchers may help them do what is best for their children. On the contrary, we hope they'll stay with us, work with us, to find the solutions they desire. Nevertheless, we challenge those who have already abandoned public education to think about the harm vouchers will do.
Vouchers let Utah legislators off the hook. They do nothing to address underfunding of public school programs. They will not reduce class size, train teachers, develop innovative curricula, rebuild unsafe facilities or pay rising transportation costs. Powerful legislators say, "More money is not the whole solution." We agree. However, less money is no solution at all. Vouchers mean fewer dollars for public schools in a state that already ranks dead last in per-pupil funding.
Vouchers deepen social divides and leave taxpayers without a voice. Even "means-tested" vouchers cannot provide equal access. Transportation and tuition costs will continue to discriminate, further dividing our community. Private schools choose the children they serve, and they tend not to serve children with special needs. Who will ensure that students on vouchers will not be counseled out of their private schools because they prove difficult to teach or discipline? Private schools typically do not meet accountability standards required of public schools, and taxpayers would have little say in how voucher dollars might be used.
Vouchers do not prevent "double taxation." All families pay education taxes only once. Tuition is a voluntary payment to a private institution. People who hire private security firms do not get vouchers from police departments. Private school tuition is not a tax in any sense of the word.
Vouchers compromise the separation of church and state and violate the Utah State Constitution. Respect for religious diversity has never been more important than it is today. We must shore up the 200-year-old constitutional protections for our rights of conscience. By opening the door for public money to flow to religious institutions, in direct violation of Utah's constitution (Articles I and X), vouchers chip away at those safeguards.
Make no mistake. Vouchers are weapons employed in a strategic attack on our public institutions. The voucher movement betrays the public good by encouraging narrow-minded self-interest and a willingness to turn away from our responsibilities to each other. The goal is to funnel government support toward private and corporate gain and to de-emphasize government's social stewardship.
Voucher proponents do not care for the students who will suffer as a result of their plans. We hope our representatives will care and will refuse to give up on the civic mission of public education.
Heather Bennett, Doug Nelson, Kristi Swett, Cliff Higbee, Mark Maxfield, Alama Uluave and Laurel Young are members of the Salt Lake City Board of Education.

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