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REPUBLICANS INTRODUCE NEW VOUCHER LEGISLATION: Plan Would Create Private School Choice Programs While Expanding Teacher Loan Forgiveness

On Feb. 14, Republican leaders in the U.S. Senate introduced S. 4, the “Opportunity for Every Child Act of 2003,” a bill that would create a new $75 million private school voucher program and a six-year $45 million voucher program in Washington, D.C. The bill, which mirrors several programs that were included in the President’s budget, also includes an expansion of the student loan forgiveness program and a small increase in the teacher tax credit for out-of-pocket classroom expenses.

As recently as 2000, during debate on the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB), Congress soundly defeated three voucher amendments. However, now that Republicans control both chambers of Congress, as well as the White House, they are willing to reopen the debate on school choice. In addition, supporters point to a U.S. Supreme Court ruling that recently upheld a Cleveland program that allows public money to be used for private and parochial schools as a reason to readdress the issue in legislation.

According to the bill’s text, public school choice, as provided in the NCLB, has not been a meaningful option for parents in rural and urban areas because of “capacity constraints.” The bill would provide options to parents in rural and urban areas whose children attend public schools that have been identified as low performing. Low-income students in these schools would have the opportunity to attend a private school if their public school cannot transfer them to another public school that has not been identified for school improvement. The bill authorizes $75 million for the program in fiscal 2004 and such sums as may be necessary for each of the four succeeding fiscal years.

Teacher Student Loan Forgiveness

The bill would expand student loan forgiveness from $5,000 to $17,500 for those who agree to teach mathematics, science, and special education in a high-need school for at least 5 years. However, unlike the President’s budget proposal, this legislation would not make the teacher loan forgiveness program mandatory. Under the Republican congressional plan, not every teacher who qualifies for the program would be guaranteed loan forgiveness. The President’s proposal makes that guarantee. The bill also increases the tax deduction for out-of-pocket classroom expenses from $250 to $400.

Republicans’ Voucher Proposal for Washington, D.C.

The legislation would also create the “District of Columbia Scholarship Corporation,” a private, nonprofit corporation, which would determine student and school eligibility for participation in the proposed Washington, D.C., voucher program. The bill authorizes $7 million for the program in fiscal 2004, $8 million in 2005, and $10 million for each year from 2006 through 2009. It suggests that D.C. parents “are in particular need of more options, including the possibility of sending their child to private school,” because the District has the “lowest student performance averages of any school system in the Nation on the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP).” However, one could argue that parents who live in Washington, D.C., have more choices than parents in any other city in the country.

In the District of Columbia, parents and students have a choice between hundreds of public schools inside and outside their neighborhoods. At least 10 percent of the 68,000 district students have chosen to attend schools outside of their neighborhoods. D.C. students are also allowed to transfer to schools outside of the District if they receive permission from the desired school’s principal and pay that school district’s tuition fee.

D.C. public officials fear that public vouchers will drain funds from the public schools and programs, as well as from existing school choice options, such as charter and magnet schools. The capacity of private schools to accept D.C. voucher recipients is also questioned. Voucher proponents stress the idea that competition among all schools would pressure school officials and staff to reform and improve their schools or close down for lack of attendance.

Study’s Results Show No Difference Between Private and Public Schools

A new study of 16 public, private, and charter schools in California suggests that differences between private and public schools in effectiveness and operation may have been exaggerated. In fact, the biggest difference in performance that the three researchers, Luis A. Benveniste, Martin Carnoy, and Richard Rothstein found between the schools was more likely attributable to the student body’s socioeconomic status than to the public/private designation.

The report suggests that policies based on the value of competition in the education marketplace are questionable. Critics of the study claim that the sample size of the study was too small to draw conclusions. The study, published in a book titled All Else Equal: Are Public and Private Schools Different?, adds to a growing list of research with mixed findings on how a private school education affects a student’s standardized test scores.

The researchers found similarities between better-off private and public schools and similarities between low-income private and public schools. Low-income private and public schools were both characterized by teacher shortages, little latitude to try innovative teaching ideas or to eliminate ineffective teachers, as well as low parent involvement. In fact, the report found that private schools serving low-income students were more likely to resemble public schools serving a similar population than private schools serving a more affluent student body. “We were actually surprised at how few differences we found,” Benveniste said. “In the absence of the religious imagery on the walls, it’s really hard to tell whether you’re in a private school or a public.”

For more information, read the Education Week article at: http://www.edweek.com/ew/ewstory.cfm?slug=19private.h22

 

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