Thursday, January 26, 2006

Religion takes center place in Milwaukee voucher debate

The Badger Herald - University of Wisconsin-Madison:

Religion takes center place in Milwaukee voucher debate

"Freedom of choice is a staple of American culture that should be available to every American citizen, but many choices are limited due to factors such as socioeconomic status.

For children born into these circumstances, choices are made by parents to ensure the best possible future. Many are lucky and grow up within the confinement of a good public school district, and so private schools are not needed. For some, private schools are chosen despite good public schools for religious or academic reasons. Then there are those who do not have a competent school district or the option of private schools due to extreme tuition costs and location...."

This editorial raises some interesting points in a fairly balanced way. It is not what one might expect from a student newspaper in what some have called "The Peoples' Republic of Madison."

When one looks at the central issue of WHY Milwaukee chose to go with this voucher system 15 years ago, it may not be as surpising that The Daily Badger took this stance.

Where the public school systems are well-administered and the curriculum is well-taught, then this issue is generally moot. But when the schools are below standards and are not safe places, then private schools become more important. The affluent have far greater access to such schools than the poorer segments of society, so with some reflection, it is actually an egalitarian issue.

But, as 60 Minutes might say, "There's a dark side to all of this." There are 115 private school in Milwaukee that accept vouchers. According to this editorial, most of them do not meet the standards expected, due in large part to the fairly easy requirements to become a voucher school -- and this is just the administrative side of things. The curricula are not always challenging and the teachers are not always required to be certified. Perhaps the worst thing is that there seems to be no accountability when it comes to student success. Absenteeism is one factor, as is the lack of standardized testing; and neither is required to be reported to the state.

The editorial makes the valid point that when nearly $6000 per student per year is allocated to the voucher schools, there must be higher requirements to become a voucher school, and the same accountability that the public schools are expected to demonstrate.

This opinion piece singles out one school for high praise: The Believers in Christ Christian School. This school enrolls 213 voucher students and has had a 100% college admission rate over the past few years. Why? In part, because nearly all the religious voucher schools require certified teachers, in contrast to the nonreligious schools.

The writer ends in a confusing way. On one hand she seems to be calling for higher standards and greater accountability for the voucher schools as a solution to the existing problem. On the other hand she seems to be calling for the end of the voucher program, and the reallocation of the funding to the public schools. My gut feeling is that it would be more cost-effective to insist on higher standards for the voucher schools. The students deserve far better than either the public schools or the voucher schools are currently providing.

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