Will Vouchers Rise Up and Sink Bush's Education Reform Plan?

  • Share
  • Read Later

George W. Bush greets children at a Houston, Tex., elementary school

Let the education tug-of-war begin.

Tuesday, it seemed everyone in Washington had a new (and, of course, bang-up) education plan. Everyone, from the new president to Democrats in Congress, was flagging down roving reporters to display their policy acumen and dedication to education reform.

And as everyone involved is quick to point out, the plans share plenty of theoretical territory — it's just the practical terms that cause so much trouble. No one, for example, can argue with the idea of making public schools better, just as no one can agree on just how to go about doing it.

The primary disagreement, of course, is the issue of vouchers. Most Republicans, including the President, are in favor of introducing vouchers — which can be used toward tuition at private or parochial schools — into "no-win" situations, when kids at local public schools are consistently denied the education they need. Democrats in general oppose vouchers; they worry that the program, which they say would siphon federal money from failing public schools into the coffers of private schools, could destroy the nation's public education system.

Pressure on principals

No one's arguing that Bush's plan, which would cost around $48 billion, would direct a whole lot of money to public schools, to be spent on such programs as improved teacher training and pay, better facilities and updated teaching aids, such as books and computers. It also puts pressure on principals to account for their schools' performance, gives local officials more control, requires that all children be able to read by the third grade and prescribes regular reading and math testing for students. For teachers whose students excel, there is a merit pay clause.

All of that sounds pretty good to everyone — teachers, parents and legislators. But here's where the debate gets sticky. The Bush plan gives public schools more funding, but if failing schools don't improve in two years, the federal cash flow stops, and money (as much as $1,500 per pupil) once earmarked for the school is diverted to parents, initially for use on transportation to better public schools. Then, after three years, parents can exercise their "school choice" and use that money toward private school tuition. (Notice that the words "school choice" have replaced the red-rag-to-the-bull "vouchers.")

The Democratic plan

Even before Bush announced his intentions, Democrats and moderate Republicans were ready with alternative plans. The proposal sponsored by Democratic senators Joe Lieberman and Evan Bayh, which has reportedly attracted bipartisan support, is more expensive than the President's and demands greater faith in public school administrators and teachers. And, perhaps most notably, the plan contains no mention of vouchers (or whatever word is used to describe them). According to Senator Lieberman, who appeared on ABC's "Good Morning America" to discuss education reform, the plan calls for government to "pour more money into poorer schools, give the teachers and principals more flexibility on how they are going to use that money. If they are not working, close the schools down and radically restructure them, give parents an opportunity to send their kids to a higher-performing public school," Lieberman said.

It's not clear whether vouchers would actually be the kiss of death to any education reform package. Certainly at this point, says David Paris, professor of government at Hamilton College and an expert in education reform, the word "voucher" has taken on a political life of its own, and its introduction could wreak havoc on the education debate. "If the conversation turns to vouchers, the air will be poisoned," he says. Not surprisingly, perhaps, in this era of perfectly bisected public opinion, recent Zogby polls show Americans split on the issue of vouchers, with 45 percent opposed and 48 percent in favor. That division could mean political deadlock, and that's a danger the Bush camp is slowly coming to terms with. Despite Bush's well-known enthusiasm for vouchers, spokesman Ari Fleischer said Monday they will not be a "deal breaker" for the President. But just how flexible is Bush willing to be?

A developing partnership?

That may depend on how much the Democrats are willing to bend in the name of consensus. There are signs that even staunch party members may be ready to talk turkey — no one, after all, wants to be labeled as the party that sank the education bill. When asked about vouchers Tuesday, Senator Edward Kennedy, Democrat of Massachusetts, chose to accentuate the positive. "We have differences in that area, but the areas where we are in agreement are substantial and can make a very important difference." Paris agrees that concord could at last be poised to overwhelm conflict, and cites what may be an inadvertent partnership during the past three administrations as a sign of progress. "There has been a gradual consensus building over the past 10 years: Clinton's education package picked up on pieces of George Bush's plan, and now George W. Bush is appropriating bits of Clinton's plan for his own proposal."