by Mary Duty Guest column
Wednesday, February 02, 2005
Gov. Rick Perry's charge to the Legislature is to come up with a fair funding plan for all public schools, regardless of property wealth.
These neighborhood public schools educate over 95 percent of all the children in Texas. Current Republican proposals before the Texas Legislature all contain some form of tuition voucher program. Not only would that be a distraction from the issue at hand, it could make our school finance problems worse.
makers should develop a public school finance program that is fair to all before experimenting again with costly education reforms.
The Legislature's most visible experiment is the charter school program. In Waco we have seen the best and the worst of these schools. The critically acclaimed Rapoport Academy is an example of how a charter can succeed. The Emma Harrison Charter School was a grim reminder of what can go wrong. Charter schools account for 21 of the 26 academically unacceptable districts statewide. We in Waco have learned the hard way that educational entrepreneurs must give an accounting of how their funds are spent.
Recently an Austin charter school was asked by the Texas Education Agency to explain why a $57,000 SUV was purchased with school funds. TEA had additional questions about the school credit card being used to pay for hotel rooms in England, Kenya and Nigeria.
If TEA doesn't have the staff to effectively monitor the charter program, how can the Texas Legislature justify another entitlement program like vouchers?
One of the proposed laws is a "pilot" voucher program for urban school districts. There is no need to spend our money to see how vouchers work. Milwaukee has had a voucher program in place for over 20 years. Lawmakers should study the mountains of data available from it.
Texas families already enjoy meaningful school choice with magnet schools, PEG grants and transfer options available through the No Child Left Behind Act. Magnet schools exist alongside schools with standard attendance zones. Magnet schools develop innovative curriculum, and provide programs that are unique to that school. They compete for students. The PEG (Public Education Grant) program has been in place for years. It lets a child attending a public school ranked low-performing transfer to another school in the district.
The No Child Left Behind Act requires that students be allowed to transfer if their local school is rated as low-performing.
As for these options, Waco ISD has over 15,000 students - with 2,540 eligible (those at Waco High and Brazos Middle) to transfer under NCLB. Ninety two students chose to move to another school this year. Fifteen of those students have since returned to their home campuses.
Using this sort of market-economy model, there seems to be no market in Waco for another school-choice plan like vouchers.
Four years ago in my work with the PTA as a legislative liaison, I polled all of Waco's private and parochial schools about vouchers. With the exception of one, administrators said that they would not accept tuition vouchers if they had to fill out government paperwork or change their admission standards.
Private, parochial and home schools have a distinct and sacred mission in our community. That mission is compromised when they take vouchers.
Simply put, when a private school accepts government money it becomes a public school. Public schools need a fair school finance plan. Taxpayers need to know where their tax dollars are being spent.
Our lawmakers should reject any proposals that allow tax dollars to fund private and parochial education. They should put together a plan that will adequately fund the public schools that are charged with educating 95 percent of our children.
Mary Duty is a Waco businesswoman and schoolteacher.