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Weekly Alibi True To Your School

By Valerie Yarberry

APRIL 26, 1999:  It was Friday, March 12, and I was already late for school when I heard a local radio personality groan, "Can we say impasse?" He was speaking, of course, of Gov. Gary Johnson's veto of the state education budget that had come hours earlier. Suddenly, it occurred to me that I was on my way to a school that may not reopen next year.Apparently, the education bill, which allotted $1.6 billion to be spent on public schools (grades K-12), was unsatisfactory to the governor, as it was not supplemented by a plan for the remaining state budget, nor did it make a provision for his school vouchers initiative.Gov. Gary Johnson's latest plan has been called "parental choice," "opportunity scholarships," "tuition tax credits," and, most frequently, "vouchers." The proposal has gained significant political momentum since January and has caused considerable strife within the state legislature. Because of its controversial nature, numerous myths have circulated regarding the proposal's ramifications, many of which have seemingly been overlooked by the media and perhaps even the governor himself. Over a four-year period, Johnson's voucher program would phase in a system in which parents could choose whether their children attended public, private or parochial schools. The state government would then provide a $3,200 voucher to parents which would be applicable to the school of their choice.Because students are now assigned to schools based on their home address, Johnson contends that giving parents vouchers would also give them more options, meaning that an appropriate school could be selected based on a school's ability to meet a child's specific needs. During the program's first year, 100,000 low-income K-12 students are eligible, and in the following year, every student would be eligible. Johnson's parameters for "poor" and "low-income" are based on a family of four living on $16,450 per year.Also included in Johnson's 1999 education package are plans to establish 100 new and conversion charter schools in New Mexico (in addition to the five already in existence) in the next five years. This law, which would ensure adequate resources for new charter schools, is intended to grant "freedom and flexibility to individual schools," according to Johnson's Web site. He also states that, "Our public schools need to be freed from educational bureaucracy: free to innovate, focus on results, provide new opportunities for teachers, and act as a catalyst for improvement throughout the entire public school system."


The idea of parental choice dates back to the 1960s when parents desired more options for their gifted students. Alternative and magnet schools were then established nationally, which accepted students from various cities, school districts and counties, rather than from particular neighborhoods. These schools were designed to meet the needs of students who demonstrated advanced musical, scientific, or artistic skills, and alternative schools accepted those students who were perceived to be "at-risk." A more recent concept, introduced in 1990 in Milwaukee, Wis., allows selected low-income children to take advantage of taxpayer-funded vouchers to attend private schools. This system has no legal precedent in New Mexico, nor does it constitute a legal ruling on vouchers in this state. It has been highly controversial in Wisconsin and has resulted in many lengthy court battles. Districts in Cleveland, Ohio, later followed Wisconsin's example and established similar systems, picking up the check for as much as $2,250 of tuition for each of 1,700 students. Even though 71 percent of Americans favor reforming public education, according to a Phi Delta Kappa/Gallup poll, voucher programs have been voted down in 20 states. Johnson's supporters, the majority of whom are Republicans, have developed an argument that rests heavily on the issues of accountability and competition. To achieve accountability, the governor plans to test "every child, every school year, in every school, without exception." Johnson says he also plans to make a yearly account of each school's progress, by creating "annual report cards" which will be made available to every taxpayer. He will then rate the schools against each other according to set standards, which he hopes will increase the sense of competition between the schools. The schools that rank in the top 10 percent will be rewarded, and the bottom 10 percent will be penalized with "closure, takeover, or reconstitution." The current state budget distributes $1.5 billion per year to more than 700 public schools, and monitoring the allocation of those funds is crucial, Johnson says. He wants to know, "Where is the money going? What are we getting in return?" The governor is hopeful that by increasing accountability, these questions can be answered more easily in the future.Larry Larranaga, Republican Representative for District 27, and other proponents believe that there hasn't been enough progress made in the public schools, and that an alteration in culture and attitude is needed. Other changes Larranaga predicts include a slow, graduated process by which teachers' salaries may be increased. Johnson has suggested implementing a skills and competency based salary system for teachers that would reward those who demonstrate progress with their students. To ensure that progress is being made, teachers' licensing standards will be made tougher and those licenses will have to be renewed more frequently. Johnson says that when parents and teachers are treated as customers within a school system, innovation and student achievement is increased. If they are dissatisfied with their educational opportunities, students should be urged to pursue another "business" that may better serve their needs. Johnson is staunch in his support of vouchers: "Vouchers are the silver bullet that New Mexico's education needs," he says. "I believe vouchers will bring the most dramatic improvement compared to anything else we would be able to do. Much of what the legislature has proposed is just nibbling around the edges. We need true choice to bring about the competition we need to improve our schools."

Public vs. Private

Albuquerque Teachers Federation President Don Whatley is one of the most vocal opponents of the governor's initiatives. "We are talking about a mortal battle for the soul of public education in a democratic society," Whatley says. "Our message will be that the governor's 'silver bullet' will not reform schools. It will destroy them. The governor's logic that we must destroy the public schools in order to save them is dead wrong. We must save the public schools in order to advance them." Whatley insists that Johnson uphold his re-election campaign promise of allotting 50 percent of the state budget to educational reform. These funds, he believes, would help reduce class sizes, provide well-prepared teachers, decent facilities and an excellent curriculum. According to studies conducted in Wisconsin and nationwide, smaller class sizes contributed more to student achievement than did voucher programs. One study, directed by the National Bureau of Economic Research (NBER) Faculty Research Fellow Cecilia Rouse and others, compared aspects of private and public schools. "Providing vouchers to low-income students to attend private schools could help increase the mathematical achievement of those students who participate," says Rouse, but she added that "the Milwaukee data does not answer broader questions about whether vouchers improve the quality of education for all low-income children."According to the Teachers Federation, there are countless other problems presented by such reforms. First, vouchers present no real parent choice, as private schools are not obligated by law to admit any student who presents one. Proposed House Bill 656 states, "A private school is not required to accept children using a child-centered scholarship." Unlike public schools, private institutions are not held to state regulations; this means that private and parochial schools are free to accept or deny students based on race, gender, economic status, disabilities and other factors.Whatley observes: "[Johnson] demands accountability from public schools, but wants no one watching over private schools." He also points out that private schools are not required by the state to test students and report the results, which is contrary to Johnson's proposal of a "report card" for every public school. The issue of competition is also refuted by Johnson's opponents, who say that comparing private and public schools is inane, as they are inherently unequal. Public schools are required to admit all students, as opposed to private schools which are allowed to limit their enrollment based on factors such as grades, religious affiliation and gender. The National Parent Teacher Association (PTA) and National School Board Association (NSBA) are concerned that private schools could choose to accept those students who would be assets to their student body: "Our organizations believe that public education is vital to America's well-being and advocates for effective schools that provide excellent educational opportunities that leave no children behind," they say. Vital community support for public schools, they predict, may dwindle when private schools enroll the star athletes, musicians and scholars from the public schools.Connie Blue, Del Norte High School communications teacher and an opponent of school vouchers says, "I think for the teachers, right now, it's very hard for them to listen to him [Johnson] because he's so negative, and we really are working hard for the kids. All of our current initiatives are designed around providing students with what they need to be successful. Each school's community is different, and the school's goals should be set not by looking at other school's programs, but by determining what the school community needs. I didn't decide to be a teacher so I could compete with another school. I wanted to help students."Because there aren't private schools in every rural area, the number of students who can participate in the voucher initiative is limited. Conceivably, this could foster geographical discrimination and drain funds from urban schools to fund the establishment of rural accommodations. Also, the funds presented by the voucher do not provide for full tuition, nor do they furnish money for transportation, uniforms, lab fees, meals, and other additional costs embodied in a private school education. But Johnson says his program will benefit all students, including those in rural communities. "My voucher plan is basically to issue vouchers to every student in the state of New Mexico, phased in over a four-year period. Unless you make the pool big enough, you're not going to get the choices, you're not going to get the alternatives that need to be there. The public is thinking 'Let's not just dive into this by giving every student in the state a voucher.' But how do you get a few thousand alternatives unless you issue a hundred thousand vouchers?"National PTA President Lois Jean White believes such a program disproportionately favors the wealthy since lower and middle class students may not be able to afford the additional costs that upper class students can. Such discrimination issues, according to a recent Education Week article on vouchers, will "jeopardize the long-cherished ideal of offering every child access to quality public schooling if America starts treating learning like a commodity, rather than a public good."Presently, the state government designates $3,700 per student (compared to school districts in the Midwest that designate between $5,000 and $10,000 per student), which is used for teachers' salaries, supplies, updating technology and other resources. If students opt to attend private schools by using vouchers, millions of dollars could be emptied from the public schools, leaving them with fewer assets with which to maintain cafeterias, libraries, paying utilities, building upkeep, updating computers, and other fixed costs that will not change even if enrollment drops. Johnson responds by saying that public schools get between $4,200 and $4,500 per student. Taking away $3,200 for a voucher still leaves the public school with roughly $1,000, plus a student they don't have to teach.The Wisconsin Supreme Court recently ruled to expand its program to 15,000 students, which could subtract nearly $70 million from the state's public schools. In Ohio, $8.7 million is spent yearly to keep the voucher program operating.

Man with a Plan?

Johnson devised the voucher program, he says, when he realized that, after 15 years of nearly doubling funds and reform projects, the public schools were still failing too many. "The monopoly nature of our school system must change," Johnson says. "And vouchers are what are needed for school reform nationwide."Del Norte High School language teacher Laura Parnell disagrees with Johnson's voucher position. "My biggest concern is that hard working teachers and their students are being verbally abused by the governor when he says our educational system has failed. No, it has not. It changes as it grows, it adapts to communities and it has always responded to the needs of children. Look to your educators for your answers, Mr. Johnson. We know what's wrong--we work here! And we have a pretty good idea of how to fix those problems." "Thirty percent of kids who start out in the ninth grade don't make it to graduation day," says Johnson. "Those kids are obviously not having their needs met, so really, vouchers just give kids and parents a choice as to what school they want to attend. This is not a plan about bashing public schools; it is about making public schools better, and I really do believe that competition makes products better, and public schools have been immune to any kind of competition."To be sure, the state's public school systems aren't infallible, but some of those working within the system believe that many of the problems stem directly from government involvement. Parnell believes that "legislators who think they're educators" are a central obstacle. Such legislators, she says, "handcuff" the teachers with policies that should instead be governed by school officials. Programs that limit students' and teachers' options are inflicted on the public schools, and educators are required to follow them. For instance, all students must take a communication skills class (or an equivalent), Freshman Success courses and other required classes that limit students' elective courses. Parnell also cites unreasonable class sizes and programs such as "closed campus" as contributing to a negative learning environment. She also says that the governor treating students as statistics rather than as people concerns many educators. They recognize that analyzing test scores is not an accurate method of measuring a student's creative and intellectual capacities. Several Del Norte High School teachers agree that the current funding formulas should be reevaluated so as to provide maximum benefits for students. Presently, funds are trickled down through a complicated hierarchy, and classrooms rarely see adequate financing, says Parnell.The focus of the voucher system should naturally be placed on its educational benefits, if any exist. In an October 1994 survey of U.S. public and private schools, Money magazine demonstrated that private schools do not necessarily produce higher grades, adding that the majority of parents believe that public schools are doing a good job. Not surprisingly, there is much disagreement among high school students on the issue of vouchers. Del Norte High School student Will Brewer says he would not take advantage of a voucher because they demonstrate no real benefit and because many private schools offer fewer opportunities, such as no AAAA sports and no Junior Officer Training Corps classes (JROTC). Ami Hughes, another Del Norte High School student, has an alternate view. She says she would take advantage of a voucher (if the program were well thought-out) because private schools "teach more advanced subjects more thoroughly."

Do Vouchers Work?

In Milwaukee, numerous tests have been conducted to measure private school students compared to their public school counterparts, and results have been persistently inconclusive, states a U.S. Department of Education September, 1997 study titled "What Really Matters in Education." Milwaukee's voucher system, which has been greatly contested by educators, parents and social scientists, showed no significant increase in reading scores, but did demonstrate an improvement in students' math scores. Stanford University Professor Henry Levin wrote a paper in 1998 assessing voucher programs, and determined that public and private school students performed "about the same when student background is taken into account." In reinforcement of this theory, the U.S. Department of Education found that when public and private schools follow similar courses of study, public school students score as well as or better than private school students. According to a 1998 Peter Hart poll, 69 percent of Americans strongly favor improving public education, while 25 percent prefer vouchers. In 1996, a NBC/Wall Street Journal survey showed that 62 percent of Americans opted for public school choice, and 25 percent desired vouchers.

Alternative to the Alternative

Of course, the public school systems are faced with numerous alternatives to vouchers. Current options include district-wide solutions in which students can transfer between schools in their home district, and statewide options that are available in 14 states and allow students to move to another school within their home state. Magnet schools, introduced in the 1960s, also remain a popular alternative to vouchers. Menaul School Principal Jim Garvin is convinced that the answers lie in evaluating the way students learn in different environments and with varying curriculums. He believes public schools are given enormous responsibilities and are overwhelmed with having to provide for every student on a limited budget. Adding vouchers, Garvin says, will not attack such problems directly. He also insists that private schools are already full and probably would not accommodate the influx of students using vouchers. When asked if he would accept vouchers, Garvin replied, "Of course," and added, "I'm not crazy." When the governor proposed that 100 additional charter schools be established, he gave students yet another substitute to vouchers. Charter schools contract with local school boards which provide them with funds for "charter" time periods. The schools then state the terms under which they are accountable for monitoring testing standards and curriculums. These schools face limited interference by state school boards, and according to Johnson's press secretary Diane Kinderwater, "there are fewer restrictions, more autonomy and increased parent involvement." Many philanthropic groups are also offering alternatives while vouchers are being considered by the state legislature. The Children's Scholarship Fund is offering 40,000 four-year scholarships of $600 to $1,600 to low-income students. The scholarships will be awarded on a random basis.Whether the legislature approves vouchers in its special session beginning May 4, there are consequences on both sides to be considered. "We're talking about the concept of balance in an organization with 90,000 students, and that's very important," says Albuquerque Public Schools Superintendent Brad Allison. On the positive side, lower-income students will be given increased opportunities, and parents will be given a choice of where their children will attend school. Although he says he opposes vouchers overall, Allison notes a positive aspect of the issue in that it has "forced students, parents, teachers and administrators to take a closer look at what is being done." If the legislature fails to reach a decision, however, Don Whatley believes that "another veto of the state budget by the governor will lock students, parents and employees out of schools, colleges and universities on July 1." Although his proposal calls for 100,000 school vouchers immediately, and a voucher for every public school student phased in over a four-year period, Johnson says that in the upcoming special session, he would consider compromise. "You could define vouchers geographically, phasing in, say, 50,000 in Albuquerque, Las Cruces and Farmington. But what's important to remember is that if you issue 100,000 vouchers, there will be more alternatives, increased enrollment and myriad competition."

Valerie Yarberry, a senior at Del Norte High School, has served as Editorial Intern at Weekly Alibi for the past two years. Recently, she was named New Mexico Scholastic Journalist of the Year.

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