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Metro: D.C. School Choice

Quality Education Needed For All

With Tanya Clay
Deputy Directory, Public Policy, People for the American Way
Friday, September 5, 2003; 12:00 PM

Votes in both the Senate and House scheduled for Friday could pave the way for a five-year program providing federal grants of as much as $7,500 per student to subsidize private school tuition for at least 2,000 low-income children in the District. But will a voucher program help the District's education system overall? Are some kids destined to be left behind?

Tanya Clay,deputy director of Public Policy at People for the American Way, was online Friday, Sept. 5 at Noon ET, to discuss the issue of federally funded vouchers in the District.

A transcript follows.

Editor's Note: Washingtonpost.com moderators retain editorial control over Live Online discussions and choose the most relevant questions for guests and hosts; guests and hosts can decline to answer questions.


Tanya Clay: Good Afternoon. Thank you all for taking the time to participate in this important discussion about the imposition of a voucher program on the District of Columbia. People For the American Way has worked tirelessly on this issue because it is our belief that our public education system is the foundation of this society's greatness. Thus, we will continue to fight for a quality education for all students and fully supporting our public education system is the best method to accomplish this goal.


District of Columbia: Among the D.C. Council members, Allen, Ambrose, Brazil, Chavous, Cropp, Evans, Orange, and Patterson all have or had children in private schools. Schwartz's kids went to Wilson. Why do they oppose school vouchers when they ignored public schools for their own kids?

Tanya Clay: Opposition to voucher programs is based upon a variety of factors, one of them being the intermingling of federal taxpayer dollars with religious institutions. Our First Amendment prohibits the establishment of a government religion and voucher programs, by their nature, promote this intermingling of funds. Thus, the problem is not whether private funds can be used for private voucher programs, but whether the public funds should support private sectarian institutions. We say no.


Cleveland Heights, Ohio: For children to get this benefit, there should be required educational sessions for dumb parents.

Tanya Clay: I share your concerns. Whenever voucher programs have been put to a vote, they have been overwhelmingly rejected by parents. The moral of the story --- when parents are educated about voucher programs they realize that vouchers are not the answer.


Ward 6 D.C. Voter: I think the whole voucher debate is the perfect example of why our colonial status is a huge problem. Here we have lawmakers from across the nation debating what should happen in D.C., without asking us! Imagine the nerve of Sen. Feinstein's statement yesterday, that she's against vouchers in California but it's OK for D.C! This debate should happen here in D.C., among D.C. voters, not in California or Oklahoma or Nevada. Give us 'true' home rule, and let us decide for ourselves!

Tanya Clay: You're absolutely correct! In fact, D.C. residents have already rejected the imposition of a voucher program and recent polls confirm their opposition to publicly financed vouchers in the District.


Washington, D.C.: I simply don't understand what proponents of vouchers think it will accomplish. Most importantly, private schools are entitled to set admissions requirements. How are poorly performing kids in public schools supposed to suddenly find themselves performing well enough to overcome this threshold? What ends up happening is poor, underperforming kids end up wallowing in a dismal school because they can't get into private schools anyway. Meanwhile, those poor kids who do have potential to succeed at private schools still probably don't have enough money on hand to pay the difference between the school's tuition and the value of the vouchers ...

Tanya Clay: I, too, fail to understand the logic of voucher proponents. If the goal is to help poor, underperforming kids, then clearly vouchers are not the answer. Vouchers will not allow for most low-income students to attend the top tier private schools that are typically considered to be providing a better education. Will vouchers pay for transportation costs to the school? What about school lunches? These children receive free and reduced school lunches at public schools. What about uniforms? Counseling services? Afterschool activities? Services for special needs students? The answer to all of the above -- No.


Laurel, Md.: Currently D.C. public schools cost about $10,800 per student per year.

Isn't it true that sending kids to private school at the cost of a $7,500 only SAVES the public school system money?

Tanya Clay: This is a common misconception about the funding of DC public schools. The figure of $10,800 is a combination of federal, state and local funds. Much of this cost includes services for special needs students ... a cost that most private schools do not have because they do not provide these services.


Olney, Md.: My concern about vouchers is always that they give public money to private enterprises, with little or no accountability for the results.

What accountability measures will Congress demand for private and/or religious schools if they take these vouchers?

If the answer is "none," then people need to sit up and take notice -- this is ideology at work, not good public policy.

Tanya Clay: All good questions. Private schools DO NOT have to abide by all of the accountability measures of the recently passed No Child Left Behind Act. Nor do they have to have qualified teachers with -- at a minimum -- a college degree! This measure was heralded by President Bush as a great piece of legislation that will help all of America's children. Unfortunately, President Bush has failed to fully fund this measure, further exacerbating the problems of public schools. Now, the President is encouraging the imposition of a voucher program that will divert the little funds public schools are getting. What a shame.


Bethesda Md.:
Ms. Clay,

It is shocking to me that you'd say that a public education system is a measure of society's greatness. Freedom is a measure of our greatness. That single word is what made America great and freedom includes the freedom to move location, get a new job, or get a better school experience for your children. I just want to let you know I am totally opposed to your POV. Liberals have ruined public education. The money ultimately belongs to the kids not the failing schools.

PS. Could you also please not mention "separation of church and state" in the discussion as the words don't appear in the Constitution.

Tanya Clay: All citizens pay taxes to support public services. The public education system is one of those services. If parents wish to send their children to a private school, that is their choice, and we support that. However, federal funds should not be used to support services that do not serve the majority of Americans. Private schools were not created for that purpose. Public schools are there for everyone and it is time to fully fund the system so parents have the choice of quality public schools.


Navy Yard: How long will it take to fix D.C. schools? Ten years? My kids will have graduated by then. Why not try vouchers for those kids in the poorest performing schools? By the way, do your kids go to DC public schools?

Tanya Clay: The current voucher proposals for D.C. can go to any student, not just low-income children. I agree that we need immediate reform. DCPS is doing that through transformation schools and charter schools. DCPS could do more if Congress would fully fund their budget. However, Congress continually fails to do this. D.C. residents should not be forced to impose an experimental program in order to get more funding for their schools.


Alexandria, Va.: I'm concerned about what will happen to students with disabilities under this voucher proposal. Will the private schools serve children with disabilities like public schools? Will the private schools be required to accept students with disabilities? Thank you.

Tanya Clay: Private schools DO NOT have to serve children with disabilities as do public schools. Nor, do private schools have to accept students with disabilities. This is why private schools were formed -- so they could be selective. Thus, if this program is passed, we would be promoting the use of federal funds to support discrimination.


Washington, D.C.: If the Voucher program is approved, and my family is approved, doesn't that mean that my children get to go to private school.

Tanya Clay: No. The private school does not have to accept your child. The school still has the ability to determine which students they want to attend their school.


Bethesda, Md.:
Ms Clay,

Vouchers won't hurt low income kids they'll force the school to do better. You'll never have a situation where there are only a few low income kids left in a school and the rest took their vouchers and went elsewhere. Before that happens the natural survival instinct of the school will kick in and improve the quality of education in that school. Competition doesn't kill a school it makes it stronger. You see it all over America for example the American auto industry stepped up in the early eighties and built better cars, they didn't fold like the liberals said they would. They got better and so will our public schools.

Tanya Clay: There is no reputable data to support the proposition that private school competition will help public schools. Our public education system is not a business, we cannot sit by and allow fund to be diverted and them somehow expect that same school to provide better services with less funding. Because the public schools, by mandate, have to accept all students, they need to have the proper resources to do so. Private schools don't have to accept everyone, therefore can use their resources to help only the select few attending the school.


Upper Marlboro, Md.: Ms. Clay -- While I am theoretically opposed to vouchers, the reality is that the public school system is failing many students, and not just the lowest-income ones. What can we do as parents and stakeholders in the community? At first I thought that vouchers were a fair alternative, however, many students from middle or lower-middle class families will not qualify for vouchers, despite the fact that their parents cannot afford tuition at private schools. Also, the voucher amount seems to me to only cover tuition at parochial schools, and not at the better private schools. People need to be told the WHOLE story about the vouchers. That being said, there is a real problem with many public school systems, including the one in the county where I live. In the very prosperous counties in Maryland and Virginia the public schools are excellent, so what is the problem and what do you see as a workable solution?

Sorry for the long question, thanks in advance for your response.

Tanya Clay: Your're right. We need immediate reforms. We support fully funding the No Child Left Behind Act so that schools can immediately hire more qualified teachers to create smaller class sizes. This has been proven to work in programs like the SAGE program Wisconsin. We know that smaller classes work. In fact, research from Indiana University reveals that students in public schools perform better than those in private schools when given the same resources.


Naive in Naryland: Okay...what is the problem? If monies can be allocated to send children to private schools, but everyone (meaning council members political activist) are so against it, then why don't we, and here is a novel idea, invest the monies that could have gone towards vouchers, in the public schools system? Sounds too much like right, huh? Maybe in a ideal world that would work...but, please explain to me why this cannot be done?

Tanya Clay: Absolutely right! I ask the same question everyday. Proponents of vouchers have no answer to that question. Why, because if voucher programs are passed, then it creates an extra funding source for private schools -- the federal government.


Somewhere, USA: The Other Side: The public schools rely on private schools to keep their numbers down. If all private schools closed tomorrow, the publics would not be able to handle the influx of students. The schools my son would have attended were inferior, so I sent him -- at significant personal expense that I could barely manage -- to excellent, Blue Ribbon Catholic schools, with students of all ability levels, in effect paying twice for his education -- once as a taxpayer and again through tuition, books, uniforms (all the "free" things public school kids get). My point: Parents of private school children should get some sort of break, whether it is a voucher or a tax benefit, for SAVING the public system a ton of money by not having to build new schools, pay teachers, etc.

Tanya Clay: Your question implies that when students leave public schools their costs go down. That is incorrect. Because public schools do have to support all students, they must still maintain overhead costs such as transportation, facility maintenance, food, teacher salaries, etc. The small amount of students attending private schools --approx. 10 percent -- does not change this cost. Ninety percent of students attend public schools and need support from Congress.


Washington, D.C.: It amazes me how many politicians are talking about how wonderful this voucher program will be even though it reaches just 2,000 students out of the 80,000 who attend D.C. public and charter schools. It appears as though they care very little about most of these students and have given up on them, but want a pat on the back for "helping" a few. Vouchers have not even improved student test scores where tried. What a political farce! How do you see this? Thank you.

Tanya Clay: So true! The majority of students will not receive these vouchers and will remain in public schools that now, because of vouchers, are receiving less money to provide the same services.


Arlington Va.: Is it a failure for the PFAW that this voucher proposal is speeding ahead in Congress. What has PFAW been doing over the summer to lobby against this ?

Tanya Clay: Absolutely not, it is just indicative of a Republican controlled Congress and White House. PFAW has been working for years to get Congress to fully fund our education system.


Farragut West, Washington, D.C.: How many independent studies have been done comparing children who use vouchers vs. children who remain in public schools? It seems most of the research is done by one think tank or another that has an obvious bias.

Tanya Clay: A number of studies have been done, and you're right. Many of them have an obvious bias. However, studies done by the U.S. General Accounting Office in 2002 are the type you should pay particular attention to. They have found no significant achievement gains for students using vouchers versus students in public schools.


Tanya Clay: Well, it appears my time is up. I want to thank everyone who submitted questions today. While I did not have a chance to respond to everyone, please feel free to take a look at our Web site at www.pfaw.org for more information. We have a variety of reports and documentation that will address many of the questions raised. Once again, I hope that all of you today will think seriously about the needs of our society and how to help all children. Public schools provide an education for all children and need to be supported. Diverting funds to private schools is not the answer when we don't even fund the public schools. Use the money for all students now, and not just a privileged few. Thank you!


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