The new falcon herald logo.
Feature Articles

No school left behind

The issues we face today are often muddled by a plethora of media outlets. Whom to believe? Often, the points of the issues can get distorted or exaggerated. And all too often, we don’t discuss the issues, and when we do, we don’t always listen with an open mind. We hang on to our opinions like a spider to its web. Most of the issues are not black and white; they’re gray.This column is not about one particular person’s opinion. This column is about “why and how.” The sources are reputable organizations. If we don’t include statistics in some areas, it’s because we don’t trust where they came from. Stats can be skewed to anyone’s agenda, too.Any national issue is up for discussion. We’ll take it on – with respect to all sides.Public schools are financially drained and all too often academically strained. When studious kids in a classroom complain they have a headache or can’t concentrate because of noise and chaos; when teachers and principals are hog-tied by kids and parents who constantly challenge authority and the rules; when kids sleep during class and refuse to participate and parents don’t care – the writing is on the “blackboard.” Add financial woes and flailing schools, public education needs an overhaul – again. In 2001, President George W. Bush and Congress sought to improve the public school system by passing the No Child Left Behind Act. Besides a standardized testing requirement for all states, the Act mandates that parents with a child in an “under-performing” school can transfer their child to a better school. The latter provision opened the door a bit wider for school voucher programs, which allocate tax money to parents who choose to send their children to a private school.In its rawest form, the voucher supports school reform by affording parents the right to choose their child’s school. However, opponents reason that at the very least the program interferes with the First Amendment’s separation of state and religion clause. Most private schools are religious. The First Amendment reads, “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a ‘redress of grievances.'”Simply, no law can be passed that supports one religion or all religions. No tax can be levied to support religious activities or institutions. No government entity can establish an official religion or have a preference for one religion over another. In 2002, the Supreme Court ruled that a school voucher program does not constitute the establishment of a religion. On the heels of that decision, the federal government established the first federally funded voucher program in 2004, setting aside $14 million for low-income students in the District of Columbia.The program has since dissolved, but House Speaker John Boehner has introduced legislation to revive the federal program. H.R. 471, with 50 co-sponsors, is currently on the Senate legislative calendar. Meanwhile, in the past five years, student enrollment in school voucher programs has increased by more than 75 percent. Enrollment in charter schools has tripled between the 1990-2000 and 2008-2009 school years – from 340,000 to 1.4 million. Five percent of all public schools were charter schools during that period.Twelve states and the District of Columbia offer state sponsored school voucher programs or scholarship tax credits. Legislators in 42 states have enacted bills to introduce school choice programs to their individual state.More than $700 million is available for school voucher and scholarship tax credit programs nationwide. Over the past five years, the amount of funding for school choice programs has more than doubled.As school voucher programs gain ground, naysayers are filing suits against school choice programs. The challengesAs early as 1930, the Supreme Court has addressed First Amendment issues in relation to school voucher programs. In “Cochran v. Louisiana State Board of Education” plaintiffs challenged a Louisiana law that provided secular textbooks to all children, no matter if they were enrolled in secular or sectarian schools. The plaintiffs argued that the state was taking taxpayer money and using it to help fund parochial schools. The Supreme Court upheld the law based on the “child benefit theory.” The Court ruled that sectarian schools did not benefit from the use of those tax dollars.In 1947, in “Everson v. Board of Education,” the Supreme Court upheld using public transportation for parochial school children, citing the child benefit theory – safety for the children.In 1971, as a result of “Lemon v. Kurtzman,” Supreme Court justices set up standards they used through the 1990s to decide cases related to the First Amendment and school vouchers. The justices ruled that any law taking effect must have a secular purpose; must have a primary secular effect and must not excessively entangle government with religions.Paying secular teachers in parochial schools, state-sponsored prayer, Bible readings and religious symbols in public schools were consequently shot down.There are strong feelings about school voucher programs on both sides of the fence.Pros and consProponents of the school choice programs believe vouchers force competition with public school systems, which in turn improves education. Dell and Apple; Ford and General Motors: Market forces are at work to keep them on their toes. Why not schools?Pit private schools against public systems, and the strong survive, weeding out under-achieving schools.However, foes believe forced competition demeans the democratic principles of education. And school vouchers undermine the public school system. Instead of improving public schools, money is diverted from them. The government also is not equipped to compete with private schools.Catholic Church officials in Indiana are thrilled the state recently passed a school choice program. One diocese in northeast Indiana anticipates about 1,000 new students this fall. They’ll bring in about an extra $3 million a year in revenue.Of course, those Catholic schools or any private school can reject students – they can elect to bring in only high-achieving students or Christian students or athletic students.Public schools must accept everyone; public schools educate special needs students; public schools educate homeless students, pregnant students, gay students, disabled students and students with police records – all somewhat unlikely candidates for private schools.Private schools also can be more flexible in their teaching methods and often adapt those methods to the individual student. Public schools could be too generic for many students.The majority of private schools are religious based. Private schools teach values, but those values are often based on religious thought, the Bible or other sectarian ideology. They have an agenda. Should our tax dollars be supporting those agendas that are without a doubt specific to one religion?A school voucher program cannot dictate which schools parents choose. There is unfortunately some thought in the U.S. that Muslim schools promote hatred and terrorism. The Islamic School League of America estimates there are about 250 Islamic schools in this country, serving some 40,000 students. U.S. citizens have already voiced negative opinions about public charter schools that offer Arabic languages. Will those people rail against vouchers for Muslim schools?On the other hand, school voucher programs might increase cultural diversity within the private school systems.There are those who believe that government-run schools are inefficient and wasteful, and their thinking has merit.In 2007, the U.S. spent more than $10,000 per student for elementary and secondary education – 45 percent higher than countries that are members of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development. Their schools spend an average of $7,401 per person.Yet, in 2009, the average U.S. mathematics literacy score for 15-year-old students was below the average of OECD member countries. Academic achievement is one reason that proponents rally around school vouchers. Parental choice levels the playing field for lower income families by allowing access to better quality schools.Not such a gray areaDiane Ravitch is a research professor of education at New York University and former assistant secretary of education during the George W. Bush years. At the time she worked for Bush, she advocated for No Child Left Behind and school choice programs.She has since decried both and written a book, “The Death and Life of the Great American School System.” An excerpt from her book defines her fears about this country’s most vulnerable students – the poor.”Most of the schools that will be closed (because of lack of funding) are in poor or minority communities where large numbers of children are very poor and large numbers of children don’t speak English. They have high needs. They come from all kinds of difficult circumstances and they need help – they don’t need their school closed.”In 2009, about 19 percent of students age 5 to 17 were living in poverty in the U.S., compared with 15 percent in 2000 and 17 percent in 1990. Given a middle class that is on the brink of broke, what’s the percentage of poor students going to look like in five or 10 years?Not all students in public schools have parents who care about education. These are the kids who need the public school system to be the best it can. Fledgling schools not only harm individual students but also the future of the country.Education is vital to progress and the economy. In 2009, adults age 25 to 34 with a bachelor’s degree earned more than twice as much as adults without a high school diploma or its equivalent and 50 percent more than adults who had completed high school.In 2010, adults age 25 to 34 with at least a bachelor’s degree had a full-time employment rate more than 30 percent higher than their peers who had not completed high school.I have substituted as a teacher in Colorado and Florida, and there are differences from state to state. However, for the most part, I admit I would be leery of sending my child to a public school anywhere. Would I take a school voucher? Possibly, but I would rather be part of the solution to fix public schools. It really is going to take “a village.”Last year it was projected that almost 49.4 million students would attend public elementary and secondary schools. An additional 5.8 million students were expected to attend private schools. The public school system is still the anchor of education in this country.It is in our best interests to support public education, regardless of school vouchers.Teachers are also moving around more today. In 2008-2009, 14 percent of teachers under age 30 moved from their school to teach at another.Teachers and teacher’s pay and evaluations – it’s another topic for another time, but it is time to give the profession its due.It’s daunting to think of the responsibility and influence teachers have. We need to pay these people their worth. We can argue all we want for or against the voucher program, but are we simply putting a Band-aid on the real issues?Shouldn’t we be asking why parents want to send their kids to private schools?My mother is a devout Catholic, and even if it meant sacrificing material things, she was determined to send my brother and me to Catholic schools. Religious belief is obviously a strong motivator for private schools, and that’s their choice. But many parents today are sending their kids to private schools because they fear public schools; they’re afraid their children will be exposed to drugs and violence, lousy teachers or influenced by their misbehaving peers. Who is at the controls of the public school system: politicians, parents, kids, school boards?Amid fistfights and uncontrollable kids, the telltale sign that kids and parents rule the school was a student who said this to me: “It doesn’t matter what you do to me or say to me, I am in control. You can’t make me do anything.”When I passed that conversation on to the regular teacher, she said, “It’s true – his parents have the same attitude.”Parents want teachers to make geniuses out of little Suzy or Johnny, but want it to be done without discipline.We must stop the political posturing around education. Although there are inept teachers and principals, just like there are inept bankers and CEOs, shouldn’t educators be leading school reform efforts? Certainly not the politicians.When education becomes a priority instead of a budget item; when teachers are elevated to quarterback status; when parents no longer hijack school authority; we won’t be debating school vouchers. This column does not necessarily reflect the views of The New Falcon Herald.

StratusIQ Fiber Internet Falcon Advertisement

Current Weather

Weather Cams by StratusIQ

Search Advertisers