The Good, the Bad and the Missing: President Bush's Proposals for Improving Education for Disadvantaged Students

Vouchers by Many Other Names

One significant stumbling block in the road to a bipartisan agreement for improving education will be the President’s multi-faceted effort to divert public funds from public to private schools and other institutions in a way that would be particularly devastating for disadvantaged students. His plan does this both directly, through vouchers, and indirectly, through subsidies of K-12 tuition payments in the form of tax-free earnings on his so-called Education Savings Accounts, as well as through “charitable choice” programs for students. Although the President has chosen to avoid the unpopular “voucher” word, he has nonetheless brought forward not just one, but as many as five distinct varieties of vouchers, sprinkled across four of the seven titles of his January 23 document.

Title I Vouchers

Of his several voucher proposals, the one which has been front and center in Bush’s national strategy for closing the achievement gap is his proposal to convert federal Title I money into vouchers. This would not necessarily be the largest of his voucher programs, but it is the only one that he has referred to with any regularity, and it is certainly the one that has received the most media attention.

Under this plan, Title I, the largest federal education program to assist poor children, would be made “portable” under certain circumstances. If a low-performing school has not met minimum state standards for three years running, students in that school would be allowed to take their share of these funds to any private or public school. During the campaign, Bush even proposed that states have the option to launch the voucher program immediately,without giving the schools three years – or any time at all – to improve.17 Bush has estimated the total voucher to be worth $1,500 per year, at times describing this amount as a combination of the student’s share of her school’s federal Title I funds, and “matching funds” either from state resources or from other, unspecified federal funds that together would add up to $1,500. The President’s current plan specifies only Title I funds and mentions no specific dollar amount. If no other funds besides Title I are used, these failing school vouchers may amount to only $750 on average (the overall per student share of Title I funds).

The option to transfer out of a failing school is in some respects comparable to a provision of the Title I reauthorization passed in the last Congress by the House of presentatives; in other ways it is quite different. Under the House-passed Title I (HPT1) bill, if schools had not met standards after a period of intensive improvement efforts, students could have transferred to higher-performing public schools in the district, and Title I funds could have been used to pay for their transportation. At the same time, the state would have been required to take strong action to improve those failing schools – up to and including reconstituting the school (in which case all employees would have to reapply for their jobs) or converting it into a charter school.

One critical difference between the current Bush proposal and what the House sought to do in revising Title I in 1999 is how both deal with public versus private schools. The HPTI bill gave students in schools needing improvement the option of transferring to a better-performing public school, while the Bush plan would also authorize the diversion of Title I funds for the costs of private school tuition. Such diversion of scarce Title I funds will harm poor students at underperforming schools by depleting their resources. Experience in Texas itself illustrates, moreover, that Bush’s focus on private schools offers little or no real hope for poor children to transfer out of low-performing schools. In 1998 and 1999, the Houston Independent School District, then led by Secretary of Education Rod Paige, tried to implement a policy whereby the district would pay for transfers to private schools for students who failed the TAAS and attended lowperforming schools. The school district was offering to pay $3,575 per student, much more than the amount contemplated in the current Bush plan. Yet, no private school signed a contract to participate; those that did contact the district lost interest when they learned the amount of the voucher. Average private school tuition in Houston runs $5,500 a year, and elite academies can cost as much as 12,000.18 It is clear that, in the vast majority of cases, a Title I voucher averaging $750 – or even $1,500 – would simply not provide access to private schools for Title I students.

Doubt about how many private schools would actually participate in a voucher program of the type the President proposes is not confined to Texas. Nationally, most private schools are unwilling or unable to provide adequate services to disadvantaged students. A 1998 national Department of Education survey found that only 15 to 31 percent of the private schools surveyed in major urban school districts would participate in a voucher program “if they were required to accept students with special needs such as learning disabilities, limited English proficiency, or low achievement [emphasis added].”19 Unlike the HPTI bill, moreover, Bush’s plan does not even require that students transfer to better-performing schools. Although the President’s plan states generally that there would be “appropriate standards of accountability” for private voucher schools, it pointedly does not require testing or public disclosure of results or other information. Given the low voucher amount, the lack of required information on voucher schools, and the fact that voucher schools could reject or accept students as they please, disadvantaged students could well end up not in reputable, established private schools, but in largely unregulated start-ups opened specifically to capture voucher dollars. Such fly-by-night schools have cropped up in Milwaukee and Cleveland, the only two cities with long-running voucher experiments in place, often with scandalous results, such as the school in Cleveland found to have peeling lead-based paint on the walls, no fire alarms, and a convicted murderer on the teaching staff.20 Texas, too, has seen its share of substandard voucher schools, thanks to privately funded vouchers. The most egregious example was the Sword of the Lord school in San Antonio, Texas, which was approved by the Children’s Education Opportunity (CEO) Foundation to receive its private voucher money but had no telephone listing and, at the address it gave to CEO, consisted only of a rundown shack, some broken-down cars, and a sign on the door reading “Property of Jesus Christ.”21

Bush’s proposal also ignores the fact that most programs in the 1990s to provide vouchers for religious schools have been ruled unconstitutional under state or federal law.22 Even the court-upheld Milwaukee voucher plan (under which private schools receive upwards of $5,000) has come under legislative and administrative challenge because of lack of educational accountability and violations by voucher schools of the law requiring random selection of students.23 Little real hope for disadvantaged students can be expected from such a plan.

Just how few children would benefit from the Bush voucher proposals can again be seen by looking at Texas. According to recent reports, utilizing Bush’s own formula, only one school in the entire state would have been eligible for the voucher money, and the federal (Title I) funding per student in that school was $313, meaning that $1,187 of state funds would have to be diverted in order to bring the value of each student’s voucher up to $1,500.24 The vast majority of disadvantaged children would clearly thus remain in their poor-performing schools under the Bush proposal.

This leads to the second critical difference between Bush’s plan and the HPTI. Under the House’s version of Title I, school districts would be required to take such steps as reconstituting schools that consistently fail to perform and providing adequate educational opportunities for the students in them. It remains to be seen exactly what new resources the President’s bill will call for to help the neediest schools. It is clear, however, that testing of students in conjunction with holding schools and states accountable for their performance is not a sufficient formula for overcoming the hurdles that have proven so challenging for the last 40 years. Students must have a fair opportunity to learn and schools and teachers and administrators who are responsible for their education must have the resources necessary to provide that opportunity.

In short, this voucher proposal of the President’s will do little for the students in the low-achieving schools, since even a $1,500 voucher will provide no opportunity for the vast majority of them to transfer to a private school, and his proposal will do even less for the vast majority of students remaining in the public schools. In fact, by diverting currently available resources away from these schools while offering them no new programs or assistance, it will only ensure the continued failure of these schools and the students they serve. These schools need a concerted commitment to provide them a safe and effective learning environment, not less physical resources, fewer well-trained teachers, and the false promise of vouchers.

“Violent Vouchers”

The second of the President’s voucher proposals falls under his Title V (Safe Schools for the 21st Century). He would mandate the use of federal education funds to pay for private schooling for some students now in “persistently dangerous schools” (while leaving it up to the states to define this and other terms in this provision). This provision is similar to but even broader than the “Student Safety and Family School Choice” amendment to the Bankruptcy Reform Act (S. 625) considered last year in the U.S. Senate. The Bush version would require districts to offer all students in these schools the9 opportunity to transfer to a “safe public or charter school” or, in the event no space is available for all of those wishing to transfer, allow them to try to transfer to a private school using federal funds.25 The serious problems with vouchers under Title I apply to this proposal as well. In addition, as the National Coalition for Public Education has pointed out, the “violent voucher” measure would do nothing to improve safety in the “unsafe” schools, and could end up diverting significant amounts of federal money to private and religious schools.26

Consolidation vouchers (block granting of federal programs for states to spend as they decide, including for vouchers)

One proposal in the President’s Title IV, “Promoting Parental Options and Innovative Programs,” is to consolidate a number of federal education programs into a block grant that could be used “for local innovative programs” or to “provide choice to students in persistently failing or dangerous schools.” Candidate Bush called for consolidating as many as sixty federal programs included in ESEA into five categories, and allowing “states and districts to use these funds… [for] … private school choice programs.”27 In the absence of specifics it can be said that this proposal under Title IV would, at the very least, provide funds that states could use to supplement the Title I vouchers or violent vouchers established elsewhere, and may also enable federal dollars to be diverted to fund additional, state-administered voucher programs.

Secretary of Education’s fund for school choice

A fourth possible voucher proposal can be found in the same Title IV. The Secretary of Education would, under this provision, administer a fund for the purpose of promoting school choice. Assuming that private schools are to be included in this program, this would provide another mechanism for diverting scarce funds from needy public schools and students.

“Charter State” vouchers

The fifth source of voucher funds in the President’s plan resides in his proposal under Title VII, “Freedom and Accountability,” to allow states to enter into “charter” agreements with the federal government. This “Charter State” proposal – similar to the “Straight A’s” legislation submitted last year by congressional Republicans – would allow states or school districts to receive their entire federal share of education funds without any of the targeting or other requirements of categorical programs, after submitting a five-year performance agreement. A “charter state” would then be held accountable for meeting the goals stated in their performance agreement. Beyond the significant possibility that this “Charter State” provision could funnel federal funds into state-administered voucher programs, there are even larger concerns that it would put a potentially large portion of federal education dollars intended for the nation’s poorest students and schools at risk of being converted to uses that bear little, if any, resemblance to their original intended purpose. This is a key example of the harmful tendency of a number of Bush proposals to weaken or eliminate the targeting of federal education funds towards disadvantaged students.

All in all, while it is not clear exactly what portion of ESEA funds would become available for private school voucher programs, there is ample potential under this plan for states and districts to divert significant amounts of federal dollars from public schools to private and religious schools as vouchers. Those no-strings dollars could even be diverted from schools that are doing well – and they could buy vouchers for students who are not the needy children now eligible for Title I.28

Charitable choice for drug prevention and after school activities

In addition to the above-listed five instances of voucher programs or voucher funding in the President’s plan, he has proposed two additional conduits through which federal funds would reach private or religious schools and institutions.

The President wants to merge two programs, “Safe and Drug-Free Schools” and “21st
Century Community Learning Centers,” a proposal that raises two concerns. First is that mingling these two programs risks losing the character of both programs and diluting the unique impact of each. Second, the President proposes awarding some grants to conduct after school programs to “faith-based” organizations. Although “religiously affiliated” organizations like Catholic Charities already receive government funds, the Supreme Court has ruled that government funding of “pervasively sectarian” organizations would violate the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment. The details of such “charitable choice” funding remain unclear, but based on similar proposals in other areas, there is a serious risk of loss of accountability for public funds. In addition, such “charitable choice” funding of such organizations would provide no safeguards to protect the students participating in the program from being subjected to captive audience religious worship or instruction once they are in a pervasively religious environment. In addition, it would result in federally-funded employment discrimination; religious organizations are now partially exempt from job bias laws where private funds are used to pay employees, but “charitable choice” would permit them to retain that exemption even for job positions funded by government dollars.

Education Savings Accounts

The seventh and final means of funding private education with public dollars in the President’s plan is his proposal to expand the current “Education IRAs” –a provision that currently allows parents to set aside up to $500 per year of after-tax dollars into an account from which they can later make tax-free withdrawals for their children’s college education – into a much larger “Education Savings Account” that could be applied not only towards higher education but also towards the costs of private K-12 schooling. One
of the few dollar figures included in the President’s 2001 plan is his proposed $5,000 annual contribution limit for these Education Savings Accounts.29

Bush argued during the campaign that these newly-broadened ESAs will help working families, while they would, in fact, mainly benefit the wealthy. His proposal is similar to the Torricelli-Hutchinson bill introduced in the Senate this session, which is in turn similar to a bill (sponsored by the late Senator Paul Coverdell, R-Ga., and Senator Robert Torricelli, D-N.J.) passed last year by the Senate and vetoed by President Clinton. The main difference between the Senate bill and the President’s proposal is that the11
Torricelli-Hutchinson bill would permit up to $2,000 in annual contributions while Bush is proposing a much higher, $5,000 limit.30 An analysis of a similar Senate bill in 1999 by the Joint Committee on Taxation found that 52 percent of the tax benefit would accrue to the 7 percent of families with children in private school, whereas families with children in the public schools would save roughly $5 per child per year.31 The regressive effect of such a tax credit would be exacerbated by the higher limit Bush has proposed. This type of provision will benefit only those families near the top of the allowable income range, who have the means to save thousands of dollars per year.

Since these families are largely the same ones who can now afford to send their children to private schools, the claim that these proposals will somehow enhance school choice or other educational opportunity for the poor children now attending lowachieving public schools is disingenuous at best. In fact, this is a tax cut for the rich and the upper-middle class that, with the Torricelli-Hutchinson limit of $2,000, would cost the tax payers an estimated $5 billion over ten years.32 This $500 million per year loss of revenues represents four percent of the federal government’s outlay on K-12 education.33 The cost of Bush’s proposal would be considerably higher – and has not been included in the revenue calculations of the President’s $1.6 billion tax cut proposal. The impact of the ESA reductions on federal revenues would be over and above that of any tax cut enacted. Clearly, a program this expensive would endanger adequate funding of federal support to proven education programs that truly benefit poor students.

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