2000 a banner year for education issues

Voters, courts, candidates wrestle with school choice

Across the country, education is the focus of ballot measures, court decisions, and local, state, and national elections.

In California, a school voucher initiative has qualified for the state's Nov. 7 ballot. The proposal would offer at least $4,000 to all students to spend on tuition at the school of their choice, including private and religious schools. It also would allow, but not require, the Legislature to increase annual per-pupil spending by nearly $1,000 per year to meet the national average.

"When this initiative passes, schools will be accountable to parents and grandparents, and this accountability will improve California's failing educational system," Tim Draper, one of the campaign's largest contributors, told The Sacramento Bee.

The California teachers' unions and Gov. Gray Davis are the initiative's leading opponents. They assert that the proposal will drain money from public schools and create a new class of schools that are not subject to the state's education standards.

On June 28, the U.S. Supreme Court approved the spending of federal money for computers in religious schools. Because the ruling allows public money to flow indirectly to religious schools, the 6-3 decision was hailed by school-choice supporters as a step toward constitutionally supported vouchers.

Writing for the majority, Justice Clarence Thomas explained that "the principles of neutrality and private choice" should be the only touchstones for channeling aid to religious schools. He said "nothing in the Establishment Clause requires the exclusion of pervasively sectarian schools from otherwise permissible aid programs."

The decision finalizes a 15-year-old case that began in Louisiana. Under a Louisiana program, federal money flows through public school districts, which are obligated to buy computer equipment and distribute it to all schools within the district's geographic boundaries- public, private and parochial- based on enrollment.

Cleveland is also facing a court battle over its school-choice program. The U.S. 6th Circuit Court of Appeals heard arguments in June on the constitutionality of the Cleveland school-voucher program. Opponents of the program, including the state's two largest teachers' unions, argue that vouchers violate the separation of church and state.

Approximately 3,600 students in Cleveland receive state funding to attend a school of their choice. A federal trial judge threw out the voucher program last year after more than 90 percent of the participants signed up to attend parochial schools. But the U.S. Supreme Court stayed an injunction that would have effectively ended the program until the 6th Circuit could consider an appeal.

In defense of vouchers, Edward B. Foley, a lawyer from the Ohio Attorney General's office, argued that the state was not intentionally pouring money into religious schools, since the voucher recipients can choose any school, regardless of religious affiliation.

Foley told the Cleveland Plain Dealer, "The parents have complete choice. They are in the driver's seat."

The three-judge panel refused a request to expedite the ruling, meaning it could be months, or over a year, before the case is finally settled.

According to recent polls, education is the top issue for voters in this presidential election. Both Republican presidential hopeful George W. Bush and Vice President Al Gore are actively campaigning on educational issues and polls rate both candidates equally in their abilities to deal with education. Voters seem willing to support accountability programs or radical reforms, such as Gore's plan to shut down and reform failing schools or Bush's voucher proposal.

In Florida, a school voucher program is facing a court challenge of its constitutionality; but the entire issue may have been rendered moot due to recently released state school "grades."

Florida rates its schools, from A (excellent) to F (poor), based on standardized test scores. To qualify for the voucher program a school district must be deemed failing, or receive an "F" grade. The 78 schools that were graded "F" last year all improved to such a degree on this year's tests that there are now only four schools with an "F" grade in all of Florida. Thus, the voucher program would only apply to this year's students in those few failing schools.

Some national education experts question such dramatic improvements, and wonder whether students were given easier tests and "coached" by teachers on how to better answer the questions, rather than truly learning more than in previous years. Florida public education authorities and teachers respond by saying they have worked hard to prepare students for this year's tests, and that this is why students have made marked improvement. Teachers have been cited in Florida newspapers as "dancing down the halls" and celebrating over the striking improvements in test scores.

Bill Neumann, an education consultant, told The Miami Herald, "I have to wonder why those Florida school officials are breaking out the champagne. Is it because they can hold onto their budgets, or because students now make the grade?"