Despite the passage of the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB), the President’s refusal to adequately fund this bill, in fact, leaves far too many children behind. NCLB re-authorized the 35 year-old Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA), which is the primary mechanism through which the federal government funds its portion of education in America for children in kindergarten through twelfth grade. Yet, notwithstanding the President’s bold promises for NCLB, its funding remains woefully inadequate. In fiscal year 2002, President Bush and his allies in Congress left NCLB programs under-funded by $4.2 billion. The fiscal year 2003 appropriations barely made a dent in this deficit.
The President’s fiscal 2004 budget was even worse. President Bush’s proposed budget left NCLB programs under-funded by over $8 billion. He proposed wiping out funding for 46 public education programs, including Rural Education, the National Writing Project, Arts in Education, dropout prevention programs, Native American Education programs, and other programs that benefit children, parents, and teachers. Yet at the same time, he proposed diverting precious resources – $75 million in federal dollars – for ill-conceived voucher programs and giving away $226 million in revenues to fund tax-credit vouchers for private schools. The fiscal year 2004 Omnibus Appropriations bill that passed Congress improved NCLB funding, but still left it under-funded by $6 billion. The Omnibus bill did not meet full funding of IDEA and it included a $14 million voucher program for the District of Columbia. Congress ultimately saved numerous education programs that the President proposed eliminating.
Most recently, the President released his fiscal year 2005 budget request. This budget falls over $9 billion short of the level of funding promised in the NCLB Act. He proposes funding IDEA at half the level that Congress committed to paying when IDEA was first adopted. Also, the President’s budget seeks to eliminate 38 education programs. These programs include arts in education, dropout prevention, alcohol abuse reduction, school counselors, Even Start, LEAP, Star Schools, and school leadership. Additionally, the President’s budget cuts funding for smaller learning communities, teacher certification and comprehensive school reform – all initiatives the President claims are important components of improving the public education system. Despite these cuts, the President is somehow able to find $64 million for additional private school voucher programs across the country.
While all Americans want a better education for our children, a vocal minority wants to funnel public funds to private, mostly religious schools. Tuition voucher and tuition tax credit proposals threaten the integrity of our public schools. They ignore the real challenges faced by our public schools – over-crowding, declining staff, inadequate funding, aging buildings - and divert precious funds to private schools that are allowed to discriminate.
Such measures have been rejected by voters in 20 separate ballot initiatives in eight states, and by Congress, and for good reason. A review of state evaluations by the U.S. General Accounting Office found little or no difference between the academic achievement of voucher students and public school students in Cleveland and Milwaukee - the two major urban school systems with publicly funded voucher programs.
PFAW is particularly concerned about DC Voucher legislation that was recently passed in the fiscal year 2004 Omnibus Appropriations package. In addition to all of the defects surrounding voucher programs in general, the DC Voucher program completely disregards the local control of DC residents by forcing them to accept an untested concept that they have already voted against. Furthermore, this type of legislation inexcusably uses students in the DC area, who are predominately African American, as experiments for the rest of the nation.
Tuition Tax Credits
Proponents of tuition tax credits argue that these proposals would enable poor families to take their children out of failing public schools and send them instead to private schools. In reality, most of the assistance provided by tuition tax credits would flow to those who already send their children to private schools. This is evident in states like Arizona and Illinois that are currently experimenting with tuition tax credits.
Not only are these proposals bad policy, but they also send the message to the majority of our public school students that their schools are not worth improving and that the federal government is abandoning their schools by encouraging parents to enroll their children in private institutions.
The House and Senate are in the process of reauthorizing IDEA, which guarantees to every child with disabilities a free and appropriate public education. PFAW is carefully monitoring efforts to include in IDEA a private voucher program, similar to the McKay Scholarship Program in Florida, for children with disabilities. Such voucher programs are ill-conceived and undermine the integrity of our public school system. They create opportunities for abuse, including the potential for discrimination against students on the basis of religion, gender, and even disability. And, unlike public schools, they lack accountability – private schools are not required to hire teachers with special education qualifications of any kind, institute professional development, report the results of annual audits, inform parents about teacher qualifications, curriculum, standardized test scores or teaching methods.