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School vouchers? President Bush's proposal

By Staff
Feb. 4, 2001
One of my education connected friends stopped by to pound on my desk about President Bush's education proposal. In case you've not noticed most school folks can't say "voucher" without grimacing. And my friend did more than grimace. He whined.
So I paused, tried to look thoughtful and replied, "And how would you create a sense of choice among school patrons? Competition among schools will help raise achievement which in turn will draw additional resources."
Usually the word "competition" is a sure fire conversation stopper with educators. This time it didn't work. "Scaggs, you're answering questions with questions. Come on, how can you support the Bush voucher plan?"
That one was easy. "I don't. Calling his proposal a voucher plan' is about like calling water vegetable soup.' Use of the word voucher keeps his political base anchored, gives opponents of vouchers a phony target and should encourage bipartisan support for the balance of his education proposals."
He looked puzzled, "What phony target? " So I got to lecture about how providing choice to kids in the least successful schools is not a voucher program. The Bush proposal may be a good idea for urban areas with several school districts but is a terrible concept for rural or isolated schools.
Publish test results
He still looked confused, so I rattled along. "The other parts of the President's education improvement plan look good to me. For example, national assessment or testing in grades three through eight is a good idea. I really like the idea of publishing the results school by school and district by district."
This provided some grist for this teacher's mill. "Scaggs, you usually rant and rave about maintaining local control and now you are calling for national tests. You really are as schizoid as you claim. How do you square national tests with local control?"
Now that's an easy question. The one I hoped he would ask. A gimme. "Simple. I'd trade federal rules and regulation for improved performance on test results. And that is exactly what the President's program anticipates."
I rattled along, "National standards on national tests. Why not? Our students already compete with kids from across the nation and the world. For over thirty-five years I've watched young people from Mississippi effectively compete with kids from other states on all manner of tests and other assessments.
Bragging rights'
And I closed with a compliment for our President. "In moving on educational improvement, Dubya has selected an issue of importance to both parties. And to all Americans. Poor school performance is a national concern. Leaders on both sides of the aisle agree that new approaches are needed. Bush is trying to lead."
My visitor was not to be put off. "But what about vouchers?"
So I tried again. "Here's the drill. The right gets happy because Dubya has offered something that some of them confuse with vouchers. But to get vouchers that crowd must swallow an enlarged role for the federal government in education.
The response was a strange one from an experienced educator. "You mean this whole thing is just politics?" His expression was as innocent as his question. He knew the answer before I spoke.
Bipartisanship brings folks to the middle ground. I'm betting that on the middle ground, this half-baked voucher scheme will go away but national standards of performance will remain."
My visitor shook his head. "More red tape, less time to teach. And they call it educational reform." He was still shaking his head as he slouched away. I gathered the President's plan is not especially welcome by teachers.
He departed before I could offer the good news part of the emerging political deal. There will be more resources for our schools. I hope some of those federal dollars will filter into our classrooms.
The results. A victory for President Bush and a victory for the Congress. A win for the kids? Let's see the test results.
Bill Scaggs is president emeritus at Meridian Community College and a senior consulting editor for The Meridian Star. E-mail him at