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School Vouchers –  The Debate Continues

JOSEPH DANIEL FIEDLER ILLUSTRATION

The U.S. Justice Department’s argument against the legality of Louisiana’s school voucher program reaches back to 1954, when the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Brown v. The Board of Education that racially segregated schools violate the U.S. Constitution.

The August filing of the lawsuit coincided with the 50th anniversary of Dr. Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech, an eloquent summation of how 1960 America had not yet lived up to its founding ideals of “life, liberty and the pursuit happiness” for all citizens.

Much has changed for blacks since those historic days, but the government’s lawsuit is a reminder that the goals of school integration are far from complete. New Orleans schools predominately serve black children. Within a few years of the Brown decision, the majority of white families had removed their children from the city’s public schools.

The government argues that giving vouchers to parents of low and lower-middle income for their children to attend parochial and private schools has reduced the number of white students in some parishes, thereby upsetting the racial balance of public schools even more.

Well-intentioned as that argument is, it’s time for the feds to give up that line of attack. Forced school integration had its time and place, and achieved about all it’s likely to achieve. School districts are now using new strategies to guarantee an equitable education for all. The fact is, once this lawsuit makes its way to today’s Supreme Court, it will face an entirely different mindset.

 As Juan Williams contended in his essay “The Ruling That Changed America,” the Brown decision was the “‘Big Bang’ of all American history in the 20th century.” The decision was the beginning of the end of government sanctioned racist policies and led to an integrated society. Unfortunately, it didn’t put an end to segregated schools as intended, especially in elementary and secondary schools in urban America.

 In New Orleans, in addition to moving to the suburbs, white families simply put their children into parochial and private schools that most black parents couldn’t afford. Many parents still can’t afford them, and that’s one of the main thrusts of school vouchers – equalizing the income disparity.

From that angle, vouchers appear a reasonable policy. They won’t help integrate public schools, as the feds point out, but they may have the effect of mixing the socioeconomic classes in a way that could boost the academic success of lower-income students. So far, there are no indications that non-public schools boost student achievement, but a study of a Washington D.C. program indicated a slight gain in college attendance for non-public, voucher students compared to their public school counterparts. Whether they graduate from college is still a question mark.

In an ideal, well-financed education landscape, school vouchers could be a strategy to further societal integration and create the non-discriminating society that King envisioned. He didn’t specifically mention schools, but what public places are better suited to carry out his dream that black and white children “join hands” as “sisters and brothers?”

Some researchers today are proposing that policy leaders shift focus from racial integration to socioeconomic integration. This reasoning suggests that income separates people nowadays more than race, and that the high-poverty schools that dominate inner-cities continue to perpetuate low academic achievement and the continued poverty of all minorities. They argue that peer expectations and behavior are as important to the achievement of students as the quality of the school itself.

Richard D. Kahlenberg, author of numerous books on education, wrote in the winter issue of American Educator that he hopes to convince policy makers that “the major problem with American schools is not teachers and their unions, but poverty and economic segregation.”

Among the studies he cites is a 1966 study called the Coleman Report. It examined 4,000 schools and 600,000 students, and determined that the socioeconomic level of classmates affects academic performance.

Kahlenberg says that low-income students in predominately middle-income schools are more likely to be surrounded by academically engaged peers who aren’t disruptive. Middle class schools – which Kahlenberg defines as having less than 50 percent of its student body eligible for free and reduced-price lunches – also include highly involved parents. High expectations by everyone involved, teachers, parents and the students themselves boost academic achievement.

If what he says is true, New Orleans’ voucher students may receive a better academic outcome from parochial and private schools. According to his theory, the change in peer group would make a difference. On the other hand, the research raises the possibility of counter problems as it pertains to New Orleans schools.

Most New Orleans public schools fit Kahlenberg’s definition of high poverty schools – more than half of the student body qualifies for free or reduced-price lunch. However, they’re no longer neighborhood schools that derive their entire student body from one residential area. They are mostly open enrollment charters that draw students citywide. They are also offering specialty programs in such areas as science, the arts and international studies – the kinds of programs that Kahlenberg contends will bring middle class parents back to inner city schools.

New Orleans’ improved schools are still in the growing stage and give every sign of providing the quality education every child deserves to receive in a democratic society. According to governor and state department of education websites, the state spends an average of $5,500 per voucher student to attend a parochial or private school, which translates to about $44 million for the 8,000 students who received them this year. That is a huge sum of taxpayer money that could be used to continue improving public schools.

Perhaps more importantly, vouchers drain public schools of some of their most involved and relatively higher income parents. According to the Louisiana Federation for Children, families of four can earn as much as $55,875 and still be eligible for a voucher. These higher income parents are the most likely to have the resources to take advantage of the vouchers. They are also the very parents that New Orleans schools need to retain under Kahlenberg’s model.

 Vouchers recreate a dilemma: They may provide the possibility of a better future to a few, but that possibility is given at the expense of the mass.

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