Bad Assignment

U.S. Schools Chief Seeks More Voucher Schemes

Now that Congress has passed a $14-million voucher plan for religious and other private schools in the District of Columbia, U.S. Education Secretary Rod Paige is looking ahead to the future.

The D.C. scheme was pitched as a five-year "experiment," but Paige doesn't want to wait for the results to come in. He wants other states to start implementing voucher plans now.

"This is just the beginning," Paige said during a Jan. 28 Heritage Foun­dation speech. "We can't just sit and wait five years to see what happens here. Rather, each school district must assess its needs and find the best solutions for each individual situation."

Actually, this isn't the beginning. Wisconsin passed a voucher plan for the city of Milwaukee in 1990. Ohio established one for Cleveland in 1996. Florida passed a statewide program in 1999.

The fact is, we've had plenty of time to study the fruits of the voucher "experiment." Two facts shine through: Vouchers do not improve the academic performance of students, and vouchers lead to fly-by-night "schools" run by people more interested in raiding the public purse than educating children.

The voucher plans in Milwaukee and Cleveland have been studied extensively. Although voucher boosters have cooked up some "junk science" studies designed to show academic improvement among voucher students, the objective studies conducted by dispassionate researchers agree that no such improvement exists: Students in the voucher programs generally do no better academically than their public school peers.

Desperate voucher supporters have taken to arguing that polls show that the parents of children in voucher schools feel better about their children's education. This "touchy-feely" argument is an odd one for conservatives to make. Feeling good about a school is not an acceptable substitute for the solid academic gains Americans were promised vouchers would deliver.

The voucher programs in Wisconsin, Ohio and Florida also have been scandal-plagued. Subsidized private schools have shut down in mid year; some have been storefront operations run by ex-cons. One school in Cleveland had no heat and broken windows; the building couldn't even meet the fire code.

In Florida, two men in Ocala are accused of setting up a phony private school, bilking the state for nearly a half million dollars in voucher aid and funneling the cash to a terrorist network.

The "vouchers-with-no-strings" philosophy in Florida has gotten so out of hand that even officials with the Catholic school system are appealing for more government oversight. If the state doesn't step in, argues Larry Keough, the chief lobbyist for Catholic education in Florida, the experiment will collapse.

This is the system Secretary Paige is eager to expand to other states. Faced with a choice between helping America's children and blind devotion to rigid ideology, the secretary chose the latter. The words to describe that tragedy have not yet been coined.