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Vouch for it.

In "Pro Choice" (September), Siobhan Gorman lays out an "accountable vouchers" proposal. Gorman's idea calls for non-public schools that get public dollars to be held to the same standards as public schools for admissions, testing, non-discrimination, performance, and other basic forms of public transparency. This argument suggests that you can fix vouchers by making them accountable. You can't for several reasons. First, there is no evidence that vouchers raise achievement. And in the real world where voucher programs are conceived and enacted, their supporters are almost wholly and adamantly opposed to accountability to the public who would foot the bill.

For any number of reasons, it's hard to see Gorman's proposal gaining traction. Voucher opponents, like the AFT, object to vouchers on numerous grounds--not the least of which are their consistently poor performance in improving student achievement and their pervasive lack of accountability. Voucher enthusiasts insist on public dollars without strings attached. So, while I agree to Gorman's premise that public funds should come with public accountability, I know from experience that there is a great divide between what voucher supporters should do and what they will do.

Only one of the many publicly and privately funded school voucher programs now operating requires participating schools to administer the same tests as public schools, and no voucher program is required to make test results for all its students available to the public. And that's just how most voucher proponents want it. The provoucher American Legislative Exchange Council, for example, has a document titled: "What Makes for Good School Choice Legislation?" Number one on that list is "autonomy for private schools."

From private schools to 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, that is the prevailing sentiment. A survey of private and religious schools by the U.S. Department of Education indicated that these schools would be unlikely to participate in a voucher program that would require them to meet accountability standards in areas such as admissions, academic standards, student testing, and achievement outcomes. Supporters of a school voucher program for the District of Columbia resisted accountability requirements for participating schools. Incredibly, a member of the Senate--who supported accountability--quoted a Bush administration official in the Congressional Record as saying that the Washington, D.C., students eligible for vouchers would be "some of the toughest kids" to educate and that holding them to the same standards as students in D.C. public schools would "set [students receiving vouchers] up for failure."

The freedom from accountability that voucher advocates have so far achieved has not resulted in increased achievement. No voucher program--here or abroad, privately or publicly funded--has produced achievement superior to that of comparable students in public schools. And many have produced far worse results. Even voucher proponents no longer assert that students receiving vouchers will outperform public school students, because past claims to that effect have been decimated.

Yet poor performance in voucher schools doesn't mean public funds will be pulled. Nor does malfeasance or even criminal activity. Investigative reporters in Florida (not the Florida Department of Education) have uncovered millions of dollars of fraud, waste, and mismanagement in schools currently receiving taxpayer-funded vouchers (on top of the estimated $56 million the program will cost this year). And The Washington Post recently reported that Wisconsin education officials said they had "little control" over schools participating in the Milwaukee voucher program, even when serious troubles arise.

Gorman advises Democrats that backing a proposal like "accountable vouchers" would position them more favorably on education than Republicans. That claim is simply not supportable. Elected leaders are entrusted with the responsibility to strengthen public schools so that all children have access to a high quality education. Their energy would be best spent calling for the widespread adoption of programs with superior records of success--early childhood education, smaller class size, proven academic programs, and higher standards for teachers, to name the essentials. In the end, education policy ought not test on who looks better or worse, but on what works.

Sandra Feldman

President, The American Federation of Teachers

Washington, DC

Siobhan Gorman replies: So much of what Ms. Feldman writes supports the argument for accountable vouchers that one "might think deep down she agrees with me. She concurs with my basic argument that public funds should come with accountability. She also points out that no private school participating in a voucher program currently makes its test results public, which makes it difficult for parents who transfer their kids there to know if in fact, they're getting a better education there than in public schools. She does not dispute that vouchers are on the rise, which is one reason I give that Democrats should promote their own superior brand of vouchers or risk losing the education issue entirely. She and I agree that vouchers aren't a cure-all for the public schools' ailments, but like Ms. Feldman, I have been unable to unearth any real evidence that vouchers hurt student achievement, either. Most of all, she emphatically agrees that an accountable voucher proposal would meet with great resistance from conservative voucher proponents, which of course highlights the political beauty of the proposal. If Democrats come out in support of. accountable vouchers, they will not only be advocating a better policy than Bush's, bar one that forces the president, in an election year, to choose between the free-market voucher purists in his base and his own stated principle--popular with moderate and swing voters--that schools ought to be held accountable for results. Shall I consider it an endorsement?

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Title Annotation:Letters
Author:Feldman, Sandra
Publication:Washington Monthly
Article Type:Letter to the Editor
Date:Dec 1, 2003
Words:951
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