"Panelists debate proposed school voucher system"

By Christopher Keough


March 24, 1999

School voucher programs are right-wing strategies to create corporate schools with more interest in bottom-line economics and pumping out employees than student education.

Or, voucher programs provide parents with educational choices and are just one item in a tool box for an educational fix-it job.

Those were the positions taken Tuesday evening in a six-person debate on public education in Pennsylvania. The debate, sponsored by the University of Pittsburgh's William Pitt Debating Union, took place in front of about 40 people at the university's William Pitt Union in Oakland.

Melissa Butler, a full-time substitute elementary teacher in Pittsburgh Public Schools and former teacher in Chicago, said vouchers are an explicit ploy by wealthy corporate interests to create a positive public image and, ultimately, make money.

Pennsylvania Secretary of Education Eugene Hickok said Gov. Tom Ridge's two-voucher proposals, which will be advanced through legislative initiatives next month, are about choice and the opportunity to create educational competition that will strengthen the state's public schools.

Ridge has proposed a five-year pilot program that would provide vouchers for parents in certain counties to send their children to the school of their choice and not drain money from public school allocations from the state. The other proposal, part of the recently introduced Academic Recovery Act, would allow parents to take the per-pupil allocation from designated school districts and apply it to tuition in other districts.

Butler rattled off major financial contributors to the national voucher campaign. The Bradley Foundation, the Heritage Foundation, retail magnate John Walton, private investment mogul Ted Forstmann - all are conservative individuals or organizations using their financial clout and marketing to create an impression that vouchers are designed to lift struggling demographics from a quagmire of public education.

In reality, Butler said, the "trickle-down education" idea of vouchers won't cover all costs of attending schools of choice. Schools will end up making the choices based on enrollment criteria and cost.

By providing only partial tuition costs, Butler said, vouchers only will leave those most in need further behind. "Vouchers don't even make a dent in the material inequities of choice," she said.

Hickok argued opponents of the proposals are afraid of change and unwilling to confront failing public schools. He said allowing parents to choose where to send their children to school is a step toward more parental and community involvement in education, which both sides agreed is a goal for needed public school reform.

A voucher program is one tool - to be used with charter schools, state standards and technology - to bring about increased performance from students, Hickok said.

Other participants in the debate in favor of vouchers were David Kirkpatrick, a senior research fellow at the Allegheny Institute, and Pitt student Denise Olczak. The Rev. Thomas Smith, senior pastor at Monumental Baptist Church, and Pitt student Bianca Huff argued with Butler against the proposals.