Sunday, May 04, 2003

Colorado's voucher scheme

Colorado made news last month when they became the first state to adopt a school “voucher” program in the wake of the Supreme Court’s decision to uphold the general constitutionality of such programs. Upon initial examination, however, Colorado’s “Opportunity Contract Pilot Program” isn’t necessarily a great leap forward in dismantling the government-school monopoly. Indeed, several features of the bill may provide an opening for greater regulation of private schools without benefiting the majority of students.

Granted, the Colorado bill expressly establishes a “pilot” program, which implies it’s experimental in nature. But right off the bat, the bill takes a questionable action in limiting its scope to a relative handful of students. In the legislature’s statement of intent, the bill declares:

Meeting the educational needs of high-poverty, low-achieving children in our state’s highest-poverty public schools is of the greatest importance to the future welfare of Colorado.

Consequently, the only students eligible for vouchers are those poor enough to qualify for the federal school lunch program and who have failed at least one state assessment exam. In the case of K-3 students, the school itself must have received a failing or “unsatisfactory” grade from the state.

It would have been far better if the legislature expressed their concern for the individual rights of all students, rather than harping sympathy on the poor, stupid kids. After all, there are many students who are fully capable of learning, but find themselves unable to achieve in the stagnant educational setting of a government school. Still, they may be motivated enough to pass the state exams, so this bill decides they’re not worth any more effort. So long as everyone is getting at least a mediocre education, the state feels morally vindicated.

Another problem with the bill is that it works through the school districts. The districts must volunteer to join the pilot program (itself an admission the district isn’t doing its job.) Following that, the districts exercise administrative control over whether private schools are eligible to accept voucher students. Now the law does set forth criteria the district must follow in accepting a school, but even here I can see some potential problems. For example, the bill forbids any private school in the pilot program from “teaching hatred of another person or group.” Granted, we don’t want state funds supporting the Klan, but I can easily see a school board manipulating the definition of “teaching hatred” to deny certain parochial schools voucher eligibility. If a parent judges a school worthy of educating his or her child, that decision should not be subject to second-guessing by local bureaucrats.

A private school that is turned down by the school district may appeal to the state itself. This makes me wonder why the state just doesn’t assume complete responsibility for certifying schools, and cut the districts out altogether. The districts created the failed system in the first place, so it stands to reason they shouldn’t be included as part of the solution.

Even after a private school is deemed voucher-worthy, however, the state remains involved through the almighty assessment tests. Schools in the pilot program must administer state-approved tests to all voucher students, and the state has the right to decide whether those students’ achievements are adequate, once again providing an unjust government barrier between student, school, and parent.

As a final insult, voucher program participation is capped by percentage. This means that no more than 4% of a school district’s students may use vouchers at any given time. Those students who are eligible are awarded slots based essentially on a lottery system, thus leaving their educational rights to mere chance.

To recap, Colorado devised a program that (1) discriminates against students based on economic status, (2) increases regulation of private schools , and (3) imposes an artificial limit on the number of students who may attempt to escape failing schools. In the end, it would have probably been better if the Colorado legislature did nothing; at least then they couldn’t tout their fake accomplishment of implementing a voucher program.

If Colorado really wanted to try something bold (and principled), it would have dispensed with the “pilot program” nonsense, and permitted every parent in the state a full tax credit to send their child to the school of their choice. Note I’m saying a tax credit, not a tax deduction. This means the full value of a child’s tuition would be taken directly from the parents’ tax payment. Given that schools are entirely a creature of taxpayer financing, this is more than fair. In the case of poor families, the state would actually pay the tuition directly to the chosen school in lieu of the credit. This would prove to be a far less costly alternative than today’s failed system, and it would benefit far more children than Colorado’s convoluted voucher scheme.

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