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As state legislative session looms, school voucher rhetoric heats up

By Christina Lane
Dec. 8, 2012 at 10 p.m.

School vouchers are a godsend to education - or a curse, depending on whether you're talking to private or public school officials.

Private school leaders say a voucher system is imperative in fulfilling what they believe to be an inherent right - that parents should get to choose where their children attend school.

Public school leaders, though, say it would be detrimental to education.

"Locally, it could decrease the number of students within the district, therefore cutting funds to Longview ISD even more than the state has already done," said Longview ISD Assistant Superintendent Jody Clements.

An outspoken opponent of the system that will be an issue in the Legislature when it convenes in early January, Clements has argued vouchers would lead to the creation of "fly-by-night private schools opening up, trying to benefit from the tax dollars being available to private businesses."

It also could create an increase in home-schooled students if the system allowed home schoolers to receive a voucher payment, he said.

"Each of these could create a situation where unqualified, uncertified profit-centered individuals are held responsible for the education of our children," Clements said. "We would end up with a less-educated work force."

<strong>Not a new issue</strong>

Though previous attempts to fund vouchers have failed, the issue will have new life in the GOP-led Legislature next year. Newly appointed Senate Education Committee Chairman Dan Patrick, R-Houston, and new Texas Education Agency commissioner Michael Williams are avid backers of vouchers.

State Rep. Richard Raymond, D-Laredo, has introduced a proposal for a constitutional amendment to prohibit funding elementary or secondary education through a voucher program.

In a state-funded voucher system, the state gives money - usually in the form of grants or scholarships - directly to families so they can send their children to private schools rather than public schools.

"Pine Tree ISD does not support vouchers," Superintendent T.J. Farler said. "Texas public schools have already seen a $4.5 billion cut in education funding, and vouchers will further erode the resources necessary for a quality education in the public schools."

That's not the way Trinity School of Texas' Head of School Gary Whitwell sees it.

<strong>A private matter</strong>

"First of all, we support the public school system. We wish them no harm," Whitwell said. "However, we also believe that parents should be involved with and have input in their children's education."

One facet of that, Whitwell said, is that parents have the right to choose where their children attend school.

Proponents of school vouchers, including Patrick, agree with Whitwell's argument that parents have a right to choose where their children go to school, regardless of their income. That doesn't sit well with Clements.

"School choice (voucher) proponents make the assumption that private and religious schools do a better job of educating kids," he said. "This is a false assumption. There is no data that shows kids do better at a private or religious school. The difference is that public schools must educate everyone regardless of educational ability, financial background, discipline, handicaps, etc. Private and religious can pick and choose. They can choose who they educate. Even with vouchers in place they can still deny those students that proponents say vouchers will help."

And Farler points out that public schools are held to an academic accountability system, while private schools are not.

"If taxpayer funds are used for private schools, those schools should be held accountable to the same standards as the public schools," she said.

Farler added that there are other unanswered questions regarding a voucher system, including whether private schools would be required to accept students with vouchers.

<strong>Other arguments</strong>

Hallsville ISD Superintendent Jim Dunlap also said there are more questions than answers, but added there is no evidence to show a voucher program would improve student performance.

"The superintendent, in his private capacity, adamantly opposes any change in public policy that champions such an experiment on children and our great state," Hallsville ISD spokeswoman Carol Greer said for Dunlap. "Vouchers will not 'fix' public education; privatization of public school operations with a purpose of profit and/or budgetary reduction, will fundamentally and negatively affect education of the children of our state."

But Trinity's Whitwell said that in a private school setting, parents have more of a "direct pipeline" to teachers and the school's curriculum than they would in a public school setting.

"We think parents have a larger say in how a private school is run than they do in the public school system," he said. "We also offer a Christian environment that public schools are not allowed to offer."

However, for those who argue vouchers should not exist because there should be a separation between church and state, Whitwell said it isn't that extreme.

"While we are a Christian school, I don't feel like we force Christianity on our students," he said. "We are respectful of other traditions and other religious beliefs. I don't believe here at Trinity School of Texas we have a problem with separation of church and state."

Whitwell argued that vouchers would help parents who cannot afford a private school education with the ability to do so.

However, public school leaders argue that a form of school choice already exists within the state's public education system. If a school performs poorly for consecutive years, the state requires the school to send a letter to parents allowing them to transfer their child to another campus. Also, many school districts, including Longview, Hallsville, Kilgore and Gladewater, allow out-of-district transfers.

"Parental choice already exists," Dunlap said. "Competition already exists. Vouchers will not change that. Parents are choosing to come to Hallsville. I think that will continue."



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