Choice Charade: Senators Host Pro-Voucher Event On Capitol Hill

With no one on any of the panels there to offer opposing views, the panelists cited several misleading facts and only told one side of the story about private school vouchers.

On Tuesday, U.S. Sens. Rand Paul (R-Ky.), Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.) and Tim Scott (R-S.C.) hosted an event called “Success for Our Children: A Roundtable Forum on School Choice.”

The forum included three one-sided panels in favor of so-called “school choice.” Although the discussion did include a lot of talk about charter schools, the senators and panelists also strongly pushed private school vouchers.

The first panel included voucher proponents who claimed that school choice is “raising the standard of education in D.C.,” with representatives from several charter schools, the secretary for education for the Catholic Archdiocese of Washington, and a representative from the Alliance for School Choice, a voucher front group. The second and third panels included parents and children who participated in the D.C. voucher program. With no one on any of the panels there to offer opposing views, the panelists cited several misleading facts and only told one side of the story about private school vouchers.

I sat through the whole thing. Here are some pertinent facts that were overlooked:

Vouchers Are Not True Choice: In his introductory remarks, Paul emphasized the importance of parents’ ability to choose their child’s school. With private school vouchers, however, the parents don’t have the ultimate choice – the schools do. Private voucher schools usually are allowed to discriminate against students (and teachers, for that matter) based on gender, ability, religion or sexual orientation of the students or their parents.

Parents of students with special needs have even less of a choice. Students in private voucher schools forfeit many of the protections that come with the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), and private schools are typically less equipped to teach students with special needs. A 2010 Department of Education report on D.C. vouchers showed a significant number of students had to reject their vouchers because they were unable to find a participating school that offered services for their learning or physical disability.

The panels of parents and students included only success cases that were sure to appeal to the emotions of the audience. But these anecdotes can’t overcome the studies that show that the experiences these students have had are not the norm in the D.C. program. The panel should have had the disclaimer used by most dieting gimmicks --"results not typical." There were no examples of children with special needs not receiving adequate services or children with behavioral problems, same-sex parents, or low test scores being kicked out of voucher schools on a whim.

Vouchers fail to help most parents: In a recent Washington Post article, Paul was quoted as saying, “The president has the money to [send his two daughters] to Sidwell Friends.…It’s unfair to tell a poor inner-city kid that he can’t choose to go to a suburban school. Preferably, the more choices, the better.”

The implication that the D.C. voucher could help most students attend a school like Sidwell Friends – a pricey Quaker school in the D.C. area – is far-fetched, to say the least. The average D.C. school voucher is $7,500, which is not likely to help a child in poverty afford the $35,000 the prestigious private school charges. Religious schools are traditionally less expensive than secular private schools, so that’s where 80 percent of DC vouchers end up being used.

The Post article also notes that “Paul shrugged off findings by The Washington Post about quality and oversight problems at some of the 52 private schools where D.C. parents have enrolled their children at a cost of $133 million to the federal government since 2004.”  The fact that even the administrator of the program said that accountability was a “blind spot” in the program doesn’t appear to concern him. 

Vouchers are a serious threat to church-state separation: The problem with vouchers and church-state separation didn’t come up in the panel, but religious schools did. Tom Burnford, the secretary for education of the Catholic Archdiocese of Washington, stated that 824 students are using the D.C. voucher to attend 20 Catholic Schools. A mother on the panel also talked about how she sent her child to a “Christian-based” school with her D.C. voucher.

Yet, when McConnell stated he was perplexed about why anybody would oppose school choice, nobody on the biased panel pointed out the one of the obvious reasons: taxpayer money paying for religious indoctrination is constitutionally suspect. The lack of standards in religious schools often leads to bad science lessons including teaching creationism as science and claims that the Loch Ness Monster proves evolution is false. 

Vouchers are a threat to public education: In June, Paul and Scott proposed an amendment to the Elementary and Secondary Education Act to turn Title I funds into vouchers, diluting Title I funds and hurting the struggling schools and children in poverty it was meant to help. Fortunately this amendment did not pass, but it will likely be proposed again, as Scott hinted at a future hearing on the topic.

Alexander expressed his intent to expand vouchers even further. He actually suggested taking the entire $60 billion federal education budget for elementary and secondary education and turning it into a giant voucher, providing $2,200 for every student in the U.S.

This destruction of the education system certainly would not help improve public schools, which the vast majority of children (90 percent) in the United States rely on for instruction. Taxpayer money should not be taken away from public schools when they are in such dire need of funding only to be used in schools that promote religious agendas and lack academic accountability, regulation and civil rights protections.

These senators claim they want to improve education of all children, but their propagandistic forum shows otherwise. If they really want to help our children, they’ll stop ignoring the plain facts about vouchers.

 

P.S. Learn more about the problems with vouchers by reading this Americans United fact sheet.