Tuesday, August 23, 2011

EDITORIAL >> Don’t stick us with vouchers

The Heritage Foundation put on a good show at the Statehouse Convention Center in Little Rock Monday for supporters of private education. Only about 50 people, who included a few curious critics, were on hand, but that belies the success of the venture. This was the beginning of a big push to change Arkansas law in 2013 to divert millions of taxpayer dollars to private schools, and the Arkansas Democrat- Gazette gave them half a page of coverage.

That is not a bad thing. Arkansans need to beware these siren calls for “educational reform” and it is good to be forewarned.

The Heritage Foundation brought in Rod Paige, President Bush’s first education secretary and the principal author of No Child Left Behind, the omnibus school-reform law that was supposed to do miracles for the nation’s children but is now almost universally acknowledged to be the biggest bust in educational history.

He was accompanied by a Heritage Foundation scholar and Virginia Walden Ford, a champion of public vouchers for private education and tax credits for private-school scholarship donors.

She was supposed to have credibility because she is an African-American graduate of Little Rock’s Central High School. (See, even black people are for private education!)

All three said the public schools tended to be no good because they were protected from competition. Schools, like everything else in society, are better if there is competition, Paige said. He instituted competition into the Houston public schools when he was superintendent, and the Houston Miracle propelled him to the top school job in the country. After he left, they discovered that massive cheating had elevated the Houston schools’ magical test scores. Teachers admitted artificially raising test scores, for which they received cash bonuses from the administration.

Paige and Ford remarked upon the superiority of charter and private schools, although the preponderant research has shown that private and charter schools do no better and often much worse when you screen students for family wealth and the education levels of their parents. Paige understandably singled out the KIPP schools, where strict regimens for students and parents have produced extraordinary achievement by poor children.

But vouchers and tax credits for scholarships? The legislature now would not pass such crippling laws, but in 2013 that may be possible with a significant Republican majority.

Beware of who would pay and who would lose. With vouchers, the taxpayers would pick up the lion’s share of the cost of private schools everywhere, and the public schools’ treasuries would shrink by that sum.

Tax credits for private-school scholarships sound harmless, but remember that these are tax credits, not mere deductions, so the state would be funding the scholarships. Everything that is labeled reform is not good.

Ernie Dumas writes editorials for The Leader.