'School Choice' Schemes Looking Bleaker

It's been a rough week for advocates of so-called "school choice" programs.

First came the Florida appeals court ruling that invalidated the nation's only statewide school voucher program because it subverted the state's constitutional provision that bars the government from funding "directly or indirectly ... any sectarian institution." Then The New York Times revealed yesterday in a front-page article that federal research shows children in charter schools were performing significantly worse on math and reading tests than their peers in public schools.

Even though the U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that school vouchers do not violate the First Amendment, it also ruled this year that states are under no constitutional obligation to fund religious schools. Thus the battle over vouchers has shifted to the states, many of which have constitutional provisions similar to Florida's.

As Americans United Legal Director Ayesha Khan told the Tampa Tribune, the "ruling is certain to discourage enactment of voucher plans" in those 36 other states whose constitutions ban or strictly limit state funding of religious institutions. AU and its allies had sued the state, arguing that the voucher plan ran afoul of the state's constitutional ban on government funding of religious institutions.

Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, like his brother in the White House, has been a staunch advocate for privatizing school options, primarily through vouchers and charter schools.

The Florida voucher law, dubbed the "Opportunity Scholarship Program," was passed at the behest of Gov. Bush in 1999 and grants students in public schools that the state deems failing because of low student test scores vouchers to attend better performing public schools or private schools, religious or otherwise. The governor issued a statement bemoaning the 1st District Court of Appeals ruling and vowing to seek an appeal to the state's Supreme Court.

School choice proponents also were dismayed with news on the charter school front. The research on charter schools was found deep in reams of data the Department of Education released months ago with no public announcement, the Times Aug. 17 article reported. The data reveals that fourth-graders attending charter schools -- which are often run by private companies and funded with tax dollars but exempt from state education guidelines -- are performing "about a half a year behind students in other public schools in both reading and math," the Times reported.

"The scores are low, dismayingly low," Chester E. Finn, president of the Thomas B. Fordham Foundation and a supporter of charters, told the Times.

Finn, who served as an assistant secretary of education in the Reagan administration, added, "Somebody needs to be watching over their shoulders."

As the Times and other media have reported, President George W. Bush's "No Child Left Behind" federal law touts charter schools as a part of free-market-based panacea for poorly performing public schools. The federal law foresees an expansion of charters, since it encourages state officials to turn over troubled public schools to private groups, including religious ones.  

The federal data only adds to the increasing number of sordid tales of charter schools that have been shut down in numerous states due to fraudulent or incompetent management.

The Los Angeles Times reported on Aug. 16 that only weeks before the start of a new semester, the California Charter Academy was closing at least 60 schools throughout the state leaving nearly 10,000 students looking for other educational options. The state's education superintendent opened an investigation of the Academy, which is the state's largest operator of charter schools, after a state panel accused it of financial improprieties and poor oversight of the schools.        

Charter schools and private schools accepting voucher students in Texas, Michigan, Ohio and Florida have also been snared in legal troubles revolving around funding and mismanagement.

Evidence is mounting that suggests it is time for state and federal lawmakers to re-think their support of school privatization schemes.