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Vouching for the schools

January 08, 2006

DURING THE FIRST FEW YEARS of a school voucher program in Cleveland in the 1990s, many parents exercised their newfound freedom of educational choice by enrolling their children in private schools that ferried students to and from home in taxis. So much for spending money in the classroom.

Eventually, public outrage over the waste of tax dollars ended that practice. But it remains a prime example of how parental choice doesn't necessarily lead to better education. Good schooling requires standards, and this is where voucher systems can fall spectacularly short.

In Florida, where the state Supreme Court ruled Thursday against the only statewide voucher system in the nation, standards appear to be a one-way street. Supporters of vouchers talk about parents being free to choose schools, but they also tout vouchers as the path to accountability. The idea is that competition with private schools will lead to an improvement in the public school system.

The problem with this theory is that the only schools held accountable are the public ones. Voucher students in Florida take the same standardized tests as those in public schools, but those scores aren't made public. So private schools face no public penalty if their scores are poor. Parents are free to keep their children in such schools, of course, but should public money be spent to support a substandard education?

The court found there is nothing equal or fair about this sort of system, which diverts money from public schools to private ones. The private schools don't have to meet the same rigorous and expensive standards as public schools. Private schools in Florida aren't required to do criminal checks on their employees or meet the same fire standards. Teachers don't need state credentials or even college degrees. In other words, accountability stops before it reaches the private schoolhouse door -- even though the public is picking up the tab.

The Florida ruling's effect is unclear because the justices threw out vouchers based on wording in the state's constitution guaranteeing a free, fair and equal public education. Not all state constitutions, including California's, have the same language. But all states should have the same commitment.

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