School Vouchers are Against the Constitution


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School Vouchers are Against the Constitution


One of Mayor Rudolph Giuliani's recent education reforms is the two-year pilot program where education vouchers will be offered to poor kids from a district in New York City public schools. These students will be given on average $6,500 a year to pay for tuition at a private school (including religious ones). The money they receive will come from taxpayers.

When the typical New Yorker dutifully gives Uncle Sam his hard-earned money every year, he is under the impression that his money will be used to fund government programs from which all will benefit. The reason public schools are free of charge is because the costs of running them have been paid through taxes. "Free education for all." Was that not one of the reasons immigrants flooded to America? Giuliani's program channels public money into private funds. He is indirectly endorsing private institutions with public money, and in 80 percent of the cases, these schools have religious affiliations. The last time I read the constitution, it declared a separation of church and state. In this situation, "state" would be the public schools, Giuliani, and tax-dollars. "Church" would be the private religious schools. Giuliani's plan fails to maintain this essential separation. Perhaps the mayor has forgotten that part. I mean, with all the jaywalkers that he has to keep track of, perhaps it would be unreasonable to expect him to institute a constitutional reform program.

Legality aside, this Frankenstein remains riddled with flaws. Not all the poor students in New York City public schools are doing badly. That indicates something about the students who fail. I am a progeny of the New York City Public School system. From kindergarten to 12th grade my education has been a publicly funded affair. Ever since elementary school, I have seen many of my classmates flourish in the classroom while others have failed. The students of my elementary school were generally of the same economic and cultural (Italian) background, yet they varied in performance levels. I have found that some of my classmates just displayed no interest in school. Teachers and the system can only do so much. If a student does not care to learn, he or she will not learn no matter how good the education being given to him is. As to why the student is resistant to learning, that is an issue with little correlation to the quality of public schools.

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Numerous factors can influence a child's academic performance, such as family and environment. As explained in the Business Week article "What Vouchers Can-and Can't-Solve," "The crisis in education is as much a social and economic problem as it is a teaching problem." Transplanting a student into a seemingly better school will not eliminate the social issues at play here.

This program is open only to poor students; the middle-class students who are doing badly will not benefit. The mayor's justification is that middle-class students can afford private school without government stipends. But your honor, if a child is receiving a bad education at one of your public schools and, according to income tax returns, the parents supposedly can afford private school, why wouldn't the parent transfer the child to private school? Most parents will do everything to provide their child with a good education. Obviously, those who are labeled "middle-class" often are barely better off than the officially "poor" kids. The "middle-class" kids will fall through the cracks of this poorly constructed net. This also means that a "middle-class" student who is failing may be passed over for a poorer classmate who is thriving, even when it is obvious that the former student is in more need of help.

N. Gregory Mankiw in "Vouchers: Schools Need Competition" believes that school vouchers will create competition between public and private schools and pressure public schools into raising the salaries of their teachers to motivate them. The additional money would come from cutting back on administrators. As he says, "New York's public schools have more than ten times as many administrators per student as the city's Catholic schools. This drains financial resources from teaching; it may also erode school performance." If it were that easy, shouldn't we just bypass the whole vouchers spectacle and make a beeline to downsizing on bureaucrats and raising teacher salaries? Mankiw may argue that the catalytic competition is not generated without the school vouchers, but the vouchers will only further divert money from the already economically handicapped schools. Under his proposal the money salvaged from eliminating administrators will go to the things that the voucher money came out of. Mankiw's plan sends everything into an endless cycle, with no definite resolution.

Up to now, it has been assumed that private schools are all better than public schools. While there are some prestigious private schools such as Regis and Horace Mann, most are only marginally better than public schools. In the Sept/Oct 1999 edition of The Humanist, Edd Doerr demonstrates that 33 percent of public school students passed statewide examinations, compared to 44 percent in private and parochial schools. This is not enough difference to justify abandonment of public schooling. In addition, 3 percent of those who passed in private schools scored in the top category, while 3.5 did so from public schools. These statistics undermine the myth of private school superiority.

My friend Chet and I grew up together, and we went to the same high school. He attended the Catholic St. Clair's Academy for junior high. His parents sent him there because, like many New Yorkers, they were under the false impression that private schools were notably better than any public junior high school. Two weeks ago, over a mystery meat lunch at an NYU dining hall, he told me that he wished his parents had sent him to the school he was zoned for. He emerged from junior high with straight As, but didn't learn much during his three years there. In addition, they didn't offer him the option of taking Sequential Math in eighth grade, as most of the public junior high students in our high school had. By clearing Sequential Math, students can take AP Calculus during their senior year. Obviously, St.Clair's did not adequately prepare Chet for high school.

Guiliani's present approach implies that practically all of the schools in New York City are horrible. In fact, there are four public high schools where students have to undergo competitive examinations to enter: Fiorello H. LaGuardia High School for the Arts, The Bronx High School of Science, Stuyvesant, and Brooklyn Technical High School. I went to Bronx Science. As one of the top schools in New York City we were constantly under-funded. Classes had to be cancelled because of budget cuts. Now that money will be diverted to this pet project, my school and the other three schools will have even less funding. These schools stand out partially due to the special courses that they offer. Last year, only two people did not graduate. Of those who did, over 97 percent went onto college. With numbers like this why doesn't the mayor's plan at least try to maintain the working parts of the school system?

Giuliani's program is not reform. It is merely setting the problem aside temporarily and doing so in an unconstitutional manner. Reform needs to start at the public schools and elsewhere. Taking money from the already financially handicapped public will only make matters worse. Thank god it's only a pilot program.


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