Washington Post - Lois Romano
The Bush administration and Republican legislators yesterday proposed a $100 million national plan to offer low-income students private-school vouchers to escape low-performing public schools. The plan was immediately assailed by Democrats, unions and liberal advocacy groups.
The proposal comes four days after the independent research arm of the Department of Education issued a report showing that public schools are performing as well as or better than private schools, with the exception of eighth-grade reading, in which private schools excelled. The results prompted questions from foes of vouchers about why taxpayer money should go toward private schools instead of toward improving public schools.
The National Center for Education Statistics compared fourth- and eighth-grade reading and math scores from about 7,000 public schools and more than 530 private schools. Private-school students historically score higher, but the NCES made adjustments to account for student background -- such as socioeconomic factors and race -- which leveled the playing field.
The report also found that conservative Christian schools -- a constituency that supports vouchers -- lagged significantly behind public schools in eighth-grade math. The report supported similar findings from a University of Illinois study on math.
Education Secretary Margaret Spellings told reporters yesterday that she hadn't yet read the report and made references to the report's "modest sample." The report itself cautioned that because schools are all very different, overall comparisons of the two types of schools may be of "modest utility."
"It was not an evaluation of how school vouchers, how scholarship programs, how additional resources work for low-income families trapped in chronically low-performing schools," she said. "I do see them as . . . apples and oranges issues."
Grover "Russ" J. Whitehurst, director of the Education Department's Institute of Education Sciences, said this was the first time NCES used student variables. He said that while the report shows that considering the variables did change scores, it is of limited value because it's just a snapshot in time -- with no long-term reference points.
Spellings, flanked by Senate and House leaders on Capitol Hill, said the "opportunity scholarship" plan would be aimed at helping low-income students "trapped" in poor schools by offering them transfers to other public schools, tutoring, and scholarships to private schools, up to $4,000 per student. The secretary said the plan would cover 28,000 students.
Spellings said that if schools cannot show progress after six years of required improvements under the federal No Child Left Behind law, then parents must be offered a way out for their children.
The plan will give "the children of lower-income families . . . the same opportunities wealthier families have," said Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.).
Spellings was later pressed by reporters on whether private schools would be held to the same accountability standards under the plan, since they would be taking public money.
"Well, as we have gotten very sophisticated about data and measurements in public schools, I think parents have come to expect that, they have come to expect report cards not only about their child but about the quality of their schools," she said, sidestepping the question. "I certainly am a strong believer of accountability in education."
"They are calling this a scholarship. A voucher is a voucher. Where I come from, it's called perfuming a pig," said Reg Weaver, president of the National Education Association, the teachers union. "Anything that takes away from our ability to better our schools is wrong."