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Voucher fans take heed: In politics, cash equals control


Vouchers, which provide tax dollars for parents to send children to the school of their choice, are promoted by activists and ideologues as essentially a public school reform measure: Break up the public school monopoly, they say, and watch competition force public schools to become more like private schools.

Down in the political trenches, we know better. As a state-level lobbyist on education issues for the better part of two decades, I know what happens when public dollars start flowing to a school. Vouchers will make “private” schools into a new kind of “public” institution, subject to all the political pressures and demands of the public sector.

Voucher supporters seem to believe that it doesn’t matter where the money comes from. Whether a private school lives off the public trough or parents’ checkbooks, the place will be pretty much the same. But it defies recorded history to think that government assistance comes without strings. There is no better example than public education, which began as a local function, governed by locally elected officials and funded by local taxes. State oversight was limited to basic accreditation standards; federal involvement was virtually nonexistent.

But in recent decades, states have significantly increased direct aid to local school districts, and federal aid, though still limited, has also grown. Concurrently, state and federal governments have imposed regulations that far exceed general oversight: teacher tenure and negotiations laws; state-imposed student assessments and courses; special education requirements; and an array of other mandatory policies.

Increased state and federal funding and control is rooted in the concept that each child has a right to public education -- indeed, many of these changes result from legal decisions on that basis. Private education escaped these requirements because it was a choice and received virtually no public funding. But vouchers are proposed precisely to give each child a right to a choice in education, and it is unrealistic to believe that demands for similar mandates will not, sooner or later, follow that transition.

What about new students? Under a voucher system, which is supposed to give parents a right to choose, any private school action to deny admission would raise political questions and legal challenges. As a public school administrator can tell you, parent attitudes are very different when it concerns their “rights.” For one thing, they usually come to talk to you with a lawyer, and that means changes in the way schools operate.

For example, the federal Individuals with Disabilities Education Act gives handicapped students the right to a “free, appropriate public education,” including special education services, in the “least restrictive environment.” In other words, disabled students are not only entitled to special services, but to the greatest extent possible, they should be educated in a “regular” classroom, in the school they would normally attend. If parents have the “right to choose,” how could such students be denied enrollment in private schools without charges of discrimination?

Many Catholic schools already serve students with special needs and would serve more if they had the resources. But under federal law, special education must include services to children with learning disabilities, behavioral problems and serious emotional disturbances, regardless of cost. Once identified as eligible for special education, a student may not be denied services, even for conduct that would result in expulsion of regular students. This law was passed by the same Republican Congress that has shown increasing support for school choice legislation. Do Catholic schools want students so disruptive they require a full-time aide at all times sitting in regular classrooms? Maybe, but under a voucher system they would likely have no choice.

If a voucher plan would significantly change the relationship between Catholic schools and students they serve, it also portends a change in the heart of any school: the staff.

From the 1960s to the 1990s, public school teachers turned to unions and political action committees that won significant rights under state laws and school district contracts. In most states, public school teachers now enjoy tenure protection and the right to collectively bargain for wages and working conditions. Indeed, this kind of public sector unionism has been one of the few bright spots in recent labor history. Teacher unions have been successful in the political arena because they represent an organized voting bloc with considerable ability to raise campaign contributions. If the unions lose the voucher battle, no one seriously doubts that they would see organizing teachers at private-cum-public schools as their next great frontier.

Catholic school officials might assume that a legislature or Congress that approves a voucher plan would never bring them under the labor laws governing public schools. So did most public school board members before they confronted a simple fact -- they are, and always will be, outvoted and outspent by teachers in the political process. Teacher unions can funnel massive amounts of money into the political process because of the vast numbers of members they represent. They can also bring terrific political pressure to bear because every member of every legislative body, whatever its political complexion otherwise, has lots of teachers to whom he or she must answer.

Private schools -- especially Catholic -- have made important contributions to American education and have lessons to teach their public counterparts. Given those accomplishments, it’s no surprise that so many people are eager to see Catholic schools, especially in the inner city, receive public support so they can continue and expand their work. But Catholic schools need to carefully consider what their real interests are before embracing ideas that may have unintended consequences.

Mark Tallman is director of Governmental Relations for the Kansas Association of School Boards in Topeka, Kan. He and his family attend Christ the King Parish in Topeka.

National Catholic Reporter, August 14, 1998