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Private School Daze

Privatization comes to the classroom as school vouchers drain students — and jobs — from public schools.


Barbara Jeffries never liked the idea of school vouchers. As president of the Ohio Association of Public School Employees (OAPSE) Local 181 and an executive board member of OAPSE/AFSCME Local 4, she worried that vouchers — which use public money to send children to private schools — would benefit few at the expense of many.

Then, in 1996, the issue hit home, Jeffries’ home. The Cleveland Public Schools became the second school district in the country to implement a voucher program. And the drain on the public school budget from the vouchers killed full-day kindergarten in the public schools and cut other programs.

That left Jeffries and her family with a tough decision: Jeffries’ granddaughter Essence hadn’t had the benefit of pre-school. Her family felt strongly she needed full-day kindergarten. The only way to get it was through the voucher program. Her family would have to enroll her.

It’s been a year and a half since Essence began her private education, and her grandmother is not pleased. Jeffries, a 28-year employee of the East Cleveland public schools, now wonders whether the tuition grants aren’t a wolf in sheep’s clothing, preying on the fears of parents. "What parent doesn’t want the best education for their child?" she asks. "What parent wants a child left behind?"

None, of course. But across the country, politicians and activists are promoting school vouchers as a way to give middle- and low-income families the same choice in schools as wealthy families. They also contend that by promoting competition for students, public school systems will be forced to improve. In Cleveland, however, Jeffries has found that the promises of vouchers are far from reality and have meant one disappointment after another. She now believes proponents of vouchers aren’t concerned with better education for all students, but with an end to public education and, with it, an end to public jobs.

NO CHOICE. Jeffries’ first disappointment came when the very idea of school choice disappeared: Essence could not attend the school her family selected and was forced to go to another school in which the teachers were less experienced.

When the time came to make a decision about first grade, Jeffries and her daughter decided to give the program another chance. Then came the next setback. Essence lost her school placement and had to switch to a Catholic school, the only voucher school with openings.

There are also expenses that Jeffries never imagined. "Vouchers are supposed to benefit poor children," she says, "but there are expensive uniforms and shoes, and fees for after-school care." (After-school care is often free or heavily subsidized in public schools.) Then there are the logistical problems of going to a school far from home, requiring extra driving or transportation expenses. Without her financial support, Jeffries says, Essence wouldn’t be able to participate in the voucher program.

Vouchers are costly not just to the families of voucher students, but also to the public. According to the American Federation of Teachers (AFT), the Cleveland program cost $6.45 million — all of which was taken from state funds set aside for disadvantaged students. Was that money used to reimburse private schools for new students who left the public schools? Only partially. A majority of the voucher students, 67 percent, were already in private schools or were forced out of public schools by the closure of full-day kindergarten. In other words, the vouchers drove full-day kindergartners out of public schools and were a bonanza for parents who had already chosen private schools.

Had the money set aside for the voucher program gone to public schools, more than 4,000 children, 70 percent of public school kindergartners could have attended full-day programs, according to the AFT. As it was, 834 Cleveland private-school kindergartners had the advantage of full-day instruction — at 2½ times the cost of the full-day program previously run by the public schools.

OUT IN THE COLD. To committed parents and grandparents like Jeffries, the most important issue concerning voucher programs is improved education and student performance. Unfortunately, Jeffries doesn’t believe Essence is any better off than her older granddaughter who is in public school.

While Cleveland has yet to compare public school performance to that of voucher schools, independent researchers in Milwaukee have turned up no learning improvement for voucher students over public school students after six years of experience with vouchers. One explanation might be that private schools in both Cleveland and Milwaukee do not have to meet the same criteria as public schools. They don’t have to have the same academic standards or evidence of achievement in their programs. Private schools are also free to exclude special needs children. In fact, four of Cleveland’s participating private schools were brand new, with no track record at all.

As independently run schools, there is no accountability for services, either. In Milwaukee, two of the city’s private voucher schools shut down in the middle of the school year, leaving students literally standing outside their doors.

ATTACK ON JOBS. OAPSE State Vice Pres. Lynda Mobley, a bus driver with the Bellevue Public Schools, thinks Jeffries has hit the nail on the head when she says vouchers are an outright attack on public schools and public jobs.

"Vouchers are an immense danger, and people don’t realize it," warns Mobley. "People believe that additional funding will cover private school vouchers, that it’s not coming from public schools. Not true." Mobley is particularly worried about the future of public education since Ohio Gov. George Voinovich (R) has promised to extend the voucher program throughout the state.

"The idea of vouchers is that if public schools can’t do the job, take their money away and let private schools do it," Mobley observes. "That creates a self-fulfilling prophecy: If you continue to take money away from public schools, they’ll continue to deteriorate. The obvious outcome is fewer public schools and fewer public jobs."

For the past two years, Mobley has put her energy into Total Quality Education (TQE), a program that she believes can improve public education. Through TQE, all employees make a commitment to provide the best possible service to their "clients" in the education process, whether those clients are students or fellow staff members. By improving every step of the education process — from maintenance, to transportation, to education — the entire school system will improve.

Mobley serves on the statewide TQE committee, which was started by the Ohio Department of Education. Her role on the committee, she says, is to keep reminding people of the important role of classified (non-teaching) employees in the school environment. Her primary job in training fellow school employees, she says, is empowering them to make the schools better.

"Safety is a big issue for many parents," she notes. "Order in a school must be present not just in the classroom where teachers hold responsibility, but in the hallways, cafeteria and on school buses, where classified employees are responsible. All school employees need the support and resources to do their jobs."

There are other programs, in addition to TQE, that are making improvements in the public schools. One, the Success for All program, which was developed at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, Md., seeks to improve reading levels of disadvantaged children. In its 10 years of existence, Success for All programs at public schools nationwide have helped fifth graders read a full grade level higher than their non-program counterparts. For the same amount of money that Cleveland spent on its voucher program in 1996, Success for All could have been implemented in all 80 of Cleveland’s public elementary schools, serving approximately 40,000 students.

Whatever the program, Mobley believes that improving public schools means fewer parents will be interested in private schools. As for Jeffries, she’s not sure where Essence will attend school next year, but she and her daughter are considering transferring her to the neighborhood public school.

There’s no question, however, where Jeffries stands on the subject of allocating money for education. "The answer to better education for disadvantaged students," she says, "is to put money into the poor public schools, not the private. Use the money to educate the masses of children, rather than a few."

By Catherine Barnett Alexander

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