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As talk of education alternatives increases, will school vouchers make a comeback?

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Dec. 13, 2010 - For decades, Mae Duggan has worked to make tax money available for parents to be able to send their children to whatever school -- public, private or parochial -- that they think would be best for their children.

As a founder of the group Citizens for Educational Freedom -- whose aim is summed up in the slogan "Let the tax dollar follow the scholar" -- Duggan has pushed to keep the idea of school vouchers on the public agenda, even as other alternatives, like charter schools, grabbed the educational spotlight. Starting in the St. Louis area, the organization has grown nationwide.

Now, as a new session of the Missouri Legislature approaches, with a stronger Republican majority firmly in charge, talk is increasing about ways to give parents a new option for schooling their children -- whether it's vouchers, tax credits, open enrollment, subsidized scholarships or some other method.

Will the persistence of Duggan and others pay off?

"There are vouchers for day care, for child care, for all kinds of things," she says. "But when it comes to our issue, they make it sound terrible."

Public aid for non-public schools still faces serious hurdles, of course. The Missouri Constitution, like that of Illinois and many other states, explicitly says that no public funds may be used "to help to support or sustain any private or public school, academy, seminary, college, university, or other institution of learning controlled by any religious creed, church or sectarian denomination whatever."

And supporters of public education aren't about to let a teachable moment go by without making sure that new lawmakers understand their opposition to vouchers or anything like them.

"We're very much against the concept of providing public money that would essentially subsidize private schools," says Brent Ghan of the Missouri School Boards' Association.

"It's not that we have anything against private schools. Many of them do a very fine job. We just don't feel that private schools should be subsidized with public money when they're not accountable to the public."

And that kind of governmental oversight is something that many non-public schools are not about to accept, because they think the scrutiny of the market is all they really need.

"We have what I would call a grass-roots accountability built into the system," says George Henry, superintendent of schools for the St. Louis Archdiocese. "If we don't have parents who feel that the program we provide to their children is satisfactory, then we're closed. We are consumer-driven as it is now, and that accountability is probably the strongest accountability out there."

Voucher History

The separation between church and state enshrined in the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution has found its way into many state constitutions in the form of so-called Blaine amendments. They are named for 19th-century House Speaker James Blaine, who failed in his attempt to make the ban on using public money for sectarian schools part of the federal constitution.

While the state prohibitions are often cited to block voucher programs, the U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that voucher programs are permitted under federal law, under narrowly drawn parameters.

In the Zelman decision from 2002, the court ruled 5-4 that a voucher program in Cleveland was constitutional because it passed a five-part test devised especially for the case. It includes making sure that the school plan has a valid secular purpose; money goes to parents, not schools; the program is neutral when it comes to religion; and enough nonreligious educational alternatives are available.

In Missouri, with its Blaine amendment prohibitions, the effort to provide students support to attend non-public schools has taken other tacks in recent years. Instead of allowing the direct use of state money, legislation proposed in Jefferson City has included the creation of tax credits or the use of scholarships.

Some bills have also been tied to the performance of school districts such as St. Louis, which was taken over by the state, and Wellston, which eventually was dissolved and absorbed by neighboring Normandy.

The latest permutations involving school choice have included open enrollment, which would give parents a wider choice for their children beyond the schools in their individual districts; andlegislation filed in reaction to a Missouri Supreme Court casethat could lead to students in unaccredited districts being allowed to attend public schools of their choice in nearby districts, with the accepting districts having no say in which students they accept.

But as those issues persist, the newly constituted legislature is likely to have vouchers added to the mix.

Time For Another Look

"We need to be taking a look at vouchers," says state Rep. Scott Dieckhaus, R-Washington, newly named chairman of the House education committee. "But I think everything needs to be on the table. We need to move away from doing what is best for administrators or teachers and provide what is best for students."

Dieckhaus acknowledges that for a straight voucher plan to pass, the first step would be to take a constitutional amendment to Missouri voters.

He also realizes that if public money is going to go to non-public schools, taxpayers are going to want some sort of say over how it will be spent.

"There should be some form of oversight or accountability," he said. "I've talked to quite a few private and parochial schools, and they seem to be at least willing to look at it."

On the Senate side, state Sen. Jane Cunningham, R-Chesterfield, who has long been active in educational issues, responds immediately when vouchers are brought up by saying, "It's unconstitutional."

But she says there are other ways to achieve the same end and meet another requirement of the Missouri Constitution that she says is too often ignored: making sure students have the "knowledge and intelligence ... essential to the preservation of the rights and liberties of the people."

"There are many times that government uses the private sector to achieve their goals," Cunningham said. "I think maybe this is the time, because we are slipping behind so dramatically in global rankings, to ask what is the best way to deliver education to the public.

"What I personally care about are the outcomes. What can a student do? Can they use their skills to go out and get a productive job? I know perfectly well that many of our students are graduating who are not even literate. They can't even read. We are not even fulfilling our constitutional duties, and we must find a way to do that. We so desperately need education reform and quality schools. The Legislature has to look at what we feel are appropriate measures."

Control And Accountability

One big question about using public money for private or parochial schools is what degree of public oversight should follow the dollars.

Unlike charter schools, which are public schools that operate outside of traditional school districts but still must answer to state educational officials, non-public schools have no such oversight. Henry, the superintendent of the archdiocesan schools, which educate 45,000 students, wants to keep it that way.

He notes that in other areas -- Medicare money used at Catholic hospitals, for example -- public funds are used without rules that change the traditional religious mission of the institution. He thinks schools should be treated the same way, and if programs are structured so that tax money goes to parents to use where they wish, instead of going directly to the schools, he believes that is fair and permissible.

"We are under such scrutiny now," Henry says, "in terms of the product that we have to provide. But it's the parents who determine whether or not it's satisfactory."

He notes that today, the enrollment at some archdiocesan schools is as high as 80 percent non-Catholic, with parents choosing the schools for the education they provide, not for their religious orientation.

Duggan puts the case more starkly.

"We want no control by the government," she says. "You really don't want our schools controlled. If it says that they have to provide good schools that educate children, there's nothing wrong with that. But if they say you cannot teach anything about religion, you can't do that.

"We don't want people teaching humanism. Secular humanism is the basis of the public schools. John Dewey and Herbert Spencer, the godfathers of the public schools, were atheists. They called themselves humanists. If people want atheist education, let them have it. But if people want religious education, they should be able to have that, too."

Andy Abbott, head of school at John Burroughs, also sounded as if government oversight would not be a price that he would be willing to accept to have public funds.

"As of right now," he said, "we don't accept any government grants for that reason. We would have to do an awful lot of research about the ramifications before we would be inclined to start accepting them."

In the same vein, he said that the fact that the availability of public money might mean a wide pool of applicants for Burroughs would not make that much of a difference either.

"We take extraordinary steps to make Burroughs accessible to families across socio-economic groups," Abbott said, "and we're still able to be need-blind in our admissions policy. We are fortunate to be in that position. We absolutely are committed to being accessible to kids from different backgrounds."

Public schools' view

For supporters of traditional public education, the issue of tax support for private or parochial education turns largely on two issues: What effect will it have on public schools that are already hurting financially, and who will make sure that the tax dollars are being used correctly?

"We want to support an agenda that strengthens public education," says Otto Fajen of the Missouri National Education Association.

Noting that the state currently doesn't have enough money to fund the foundation formula for schools fully, and the state budget is likely to get worse before it gets better, he noted that any effort to monitor the use of public money in non-public schools would cost more money, besides draining more dollars from public schools.

"I don't know that we are in the position where citizens of the state would want to create another bureaucracy rather than spend the money to help the schools," Fajen said.

He also noted that public schools now have to take any students who live within their boundaries and have to provide special education for those students who need it, Non-public schools don't have to meet either of those requirements.

Ghan, at the school boards association, sees a big education effort needed to make sure that new members of the General Assembly understand what the effects of any voucher legislation may be.

"On the surface," he says, "it sounds very appealing to a lot of people. But once you get down to what it really means, problems appear. We have our work cut out for us.

"We could easily end up subsidizing the cost of sending kids to private schools that are not accountable to the public."

What Parents Say

Educators have one point of view of the voucher question, and legislators may have another. To parents, the issues of quality education and accountability rise to the top of the list.

Scott Stinson of Brentwood, who is in commercial real estate and has a daughter in public school and a wife who teaches in public school, looks at it from a business perspective.

"If you have issues with a public school," Stinson says, "there is no reason for the school to respond to you because you can't do anything to them. If you have the power to take money elsewhere, that's a consequence for them. It holds schools more accountable, that if they have dissatisfied customers, they would be penalized."

Still, he said, accepting public dollars should mean that schools accept a measure of public control as well.

"I assume private schools would not have to take vouchers," he said. "They would have the ability to make a choice, and if they are going to take the money, they would have to accept the oversight."

Mike Clynch of Moscow Mills, who retired after teaching in public middle school for 25 years, notes that comparing public and non-public schools is difficult, for many reasons.

"They operate in two different worlds," he said. "Public schools have to take everybody who comes through the door, but private schools can be selective. They can decide whom they take and whom they don't take."

Clynch, who ran unsuccessfully for the Missouri House this year, says that a big feature of any plan for non-public schools receiving tax money should be making sure that "everybody has to follow the same set of rules."

Where he lives, in Lincoln County, he said the schools are facing tough financial times, so "having the money leave with the child is not going to improve things. It's going to make them worse. It's all stick and no carrot."

He also noted the likely effect on whatever private or parochial school might stand to receive new students.

"If all of the parents in Lincoln County decided to send their boys to CBC," Clynch said, "CBC wouldn't have the room. You'd have issues of enrollment; you'd have issues of standards. Lots of folks talk about vouchers, but the devil's in the details.

"Why should a private school get the money from a student who moves over, but not have to follow state standards? You cannot compare a public and a private high school. It just doesn't work, particularly with parochial schools. Who are they accountable to? They're accountable to the parents who spend the money, but they're not accountable to the public, whose money they would be spending."

In the end, he says, the formula for a good education is no secret and no different whether the school if public, private or parochial.

"Parental support and community support are the keys to successful schools," Clynch says. "You can have a school district with all the money in the world, but if the parents and community don't support the schools, you could have a billion-dollar budget and it would make any difference."

Dale Singer began his career in professional journalism in 1969 by talking his way into a summer vacation replacement job at the now-defunct United Press International bureau in St. Louis; he later joined UPI full-time in 1972. Eight years later, he moved to the Post-Dispatch, where for the next 28-plus years he was a business reporter and editor, a Metro reporter specializing in education, assistant editor of the Editorial Page for 10 years and finally news editor of the newspaper's website. In September of 2008, he joined the staff of the Beacon, where he reported primarily on education. In addition to practicing journalism, Dale has been an adjunct professor at University College at Washington U. He and his wife live in west St. Louis County with their spoiled Bichon, Teddy. They have two adult daughters, who have followed them into the word business as a communications manager and a website editor, and three grandchildren. Dale reported for St. Louis Public Radio from 2013 to 2016.