• by María “Cuca” Robledo Montecel, Ph.D. • IDRA Newsletter • October 1998 •
This past spring in San Antonio, the Children’s Educational Opportunity (CEO) Foundation set up a 10-year $50 million initiative to provide vouchers to students in the Edgewood Independent School District (ISD) to attend private schools. Funders of the “Horizon” program have made public their intention to urge the state legislature to approve publicly funded vouchers in its upcoming legislative session (Cortez, 1998). In August, a community forum on school vouchers was sponsored by the University of Texas at San Antonio Office of Extended Education, Southwestern Bell Telephone, San Antonio Hispanic Chamber of Commerce, and West San Antonio Chamber of Commerce. Among the panelists speaking against the use of public money for private schooling was Dr. María “Cuca” Robledo Montecel, executive director of IDRA. Below is an excerpt of her opening remarks.
Are vouchers funded by private money like the Horizon scholarships available to Edgewood children a bad idea? Is it a bad thing for people who have money to give some of it away so that poor children can attend private and perhaps better schools?
The answer to that is no, it is not a bad thing. So what then is all the fuss about? Why do we not just let the CEO Foundation do their good deed, acknowledge their generosity, and move on?
I believe that the children of Edgewood, and poor and minority children everywhere, deserve more. They deserve more than charity for the few. They deserve – as children in rich neighborhoods have come to expect – the best public schools.
I also have come to understand that, while the privately funded voucher movement may seem like just one more example of corporate philanthropy (like the scholarships and the tutoring programs that businesses sponsor to show good corporate citizenship) privately funded voucher plans are seen by many as what Tom Tancredo (a former US Department of Education official) calls “pump primers” and part of a tactic to build support for publicly funded vouchers (1992).
So what about publicly funded vouchers? What are they? Although they come in many versions, they all involve the payment of public money – state or federal – to the parents of private school children to offset the cost of tuition, books or other expenses. In most cases, these school vouchers would give tuition money to any parent who wants their children to go to a private school (religious or otherwise) and, in some cases, to parents who want to home school their child.
Vouchers are popular in legislative debates. But, in 27 states in the last 20 years, 26 schemes to use public funding to fund private parochial schools have failed (Dunn, 1997). In Texas, attempts to pass school voucher legislation have failed by narrow margins, and supporters have vowed to continue their fight. Why are they fighting?
There are many reasons and many scenarios. In the best scenario, people who truly care about poor and minority children have given up on public schools. They are ready to try radical approaches or save a few children from the ruin and hopelessness of some inner city schools.
The problem with this reasoning is pretty obvious – it is the proverbial throwing the baby out with the bath water. All students should have equitable access to excellent neighborhood public schools.
The best way to strengthen public schools is to strengthen public schools – schools that are accountable to us all.
For 25 years, we at IDRA have been working for equalized school funding, for early childhood education, for bilingual education and for other programs that would benefit poor and minority children in our public schools. We find it disturbing that many of those pushing for a “voucher” program – supposedly to benefit poor children – are the same people who have opposed every positive program put forward to equalize educational opportunity.
Publicly funded vouchers would simply mean that the children in public schools with the fewest resources would be left behind in public schools that are even poorer and more inadequate. In fact, these vouchers would create, with public tax dollars, a dual system of private and pauper education.
But what about children who need help now? As it stands, people are being led to believe that we cannot wait for public schools to get better and that the only solution is vouchers since they will help children now and will spawn market-type competition that will make everything better.
At the state level, the Texas Public Policy Foundation, directed by Mr. Jeff Judson, published a report that estimates that private schools can accommodate, with the number of immediately available spaces, less that 1 percent of the low-income student population in Texas. The report also states:
The success of any choice program depends heavily on expansion of the capacity at existing private schools and, more important, the willingness of individuals and groups to start new private schools (Dougherty and Becker, 1995).
The notion that parents of Edgewood ISD or any other poor community, once armed with a school voucher, can send children to any private school of their choice is at best naïve and at worst a cynical ruse perpetrated on parents who struggle every day to get the best for their children.
No, in the school voucher scenario, poor communities have to wait for private schools to get their public money so they can expand or be created.
We have also heard the argument that free-market competition will enhance public schools because their monopoly on education will be shattered and they will have to compete for students and that parents will vote on their feet and leave weak schools and choose better ones.
First of all, competition among public schools is already possible. Also, unregulated market forces do not always yield good results. The savings and loan deregulation became the most costly financial disaster in US history.
What about those public schools that relegate poor children, minority children, children who o not speak English and children of immigrants to blighted classrooms with watered-down connect-the-dot curriculum where not much is expected and not much is achieved? Must we wait for them to get better?
I do not think we have to wait. I think we have to work. Some of us and many of you – as parents, as teachers and administrators, and as concerned citizens – have worked to move us closer to a public school system in which all children have access to excellent neighborhood public schools.
After a 30-year fight for equity in funding public schools in Texas, the gap between rich and poor is narrower than it has ever been. We have a public accountability system that has begun to give us information about how schools are doing with every group of children in every kind of public school – rich and poor.
We have public schools, like those of the Ysleta school district in El Paso, who do not see their status as a district with 88 percent minority students and 68 percent poor students as a disadvantage. In fact, since 1996 when they opened their doors to students from other districts, Ysleta enrolled 2,000 students from neighboring districts who are impressed with the performance of Ysleta students.
The Texas Education Agency is now studying some bilingual schools for their outstanding success. We have schools with lots of children who do not speak English and who are poor that are producing excellent results with no excuses.
Private school vouchers take the focus away from increasing funds and resources for public schools that are accountable to all of us. Instead they focus favor on spending public monies for private purposes with no accountability to the taxpayer and no mandate – and in some cases no desire – to educate all children.
Publicly funded vouchers are in fact taxation without representation. “School choice” is precisely that, choice for schools. It provides no choice for parents, certainly not poor parents, their children, or their communities. Public funding should focus on improving public education instead of using public money on private school businesses. America needs all of its children to be educated, not just a select few.
As Coretta Scott King eloquently stated, “Instead of scrambling for lifeboats let’s build great ships of hope that will provide safe passage for all of our young people” (King, 1997). There is hope in public schools. I believe we know how to do it, we can do it, and we must do it.
Cortez, A. “Full Pockets, Empty Promises,” IDRA Newsletter (San Antonio, Texas: Intercultural Development Research Association, May 1998).
Dougherty, J.C. and S.L. Becker. An Analysis of Public-Private School Choice in Texas (Austin, Texas: University of Texas at Austin, Winter 1995) pg. 17.
Dunn, J. “A Little Homework,” Internet posting (Washington, D.C.: Baptist Joint Committee on Public Affairs, 1997).
King, C.S. Quoted in “Cuomo, King Extol Virtues of Public Schools,” Urban Educator (Washington, DC: Council of the Great City Schools, November-December 1997).
Tancredo, T. Quoted in “Conservatives Push Privately Funded Vouchers” by Barbara Miner, False Choices: Rethinking Schools Special Edition (Milwaukee, Wisconsin: Rethinking Schools, 1992) pg. 35.
María “Cuca” Robledo Montecel, Ph.D., is the executive director of IDRA. Comments and questions may be sent to her via e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.
[©1998, IDRA. This article originally appeared in the October 1998 IDRA Newsletter by the Intercultural Development Research Association. Permission to reproduce this article is granted provided the article is reprinted in its entirety and proper credit is given to IDRA and the author.]