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CNN Today

Will Voucher Programs Bolster Public School Performance?

Aired January 23, 2001 - 4:06 p.m. ET

THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.

JOIE CHEN, CNN ANCHOR: Voucher programs certainly are not a new idea. Some 20,000 students nationwide are already using state-funded vouchers to pay tuition at non-public schools. In the 1999-2000 school year, limited voucher programs were offered statewide in Maine, Vermont and Florida, and means tested pilots were available in Cleveland, Ohio and Milwaukee, Wisconsin. The information comes to us from the Center for Education Reform.

The Bush plan does, of course, call for a sort of voucher program. Joining us from Washington to discuss the plan, the proposal there, Richard Kahlenberg, who's the senior fellow at the Century Foundation, and Megan Farnsworth with the Heritage Foundation.

Megan, I want to begin with you because one of the things that Mr. Bush's spokesman said, Ari Fleischer, said today is that is sort of not a full-blown voucher proposal. Can you talk to us a little bit about the distinction made here?

MEGAN FARNSWORTH, THE HERITAGE FOUNDATION: Well, certainly the plan the way it's currently established is that schools have to be failing for a three-year period of time and at that point, the children would be eligible to receive a voucher and they would only be receiving the voucher while they -- for the same amount in time in which they would be attending that particular underperforming school.

CHEN: So, if you were in a school that this failed for three years, you would have three years of this money available. I don't understand.

FARNSWORTH: If, for example, I was a student in an elementary school and I started there in kindergarten and my school was failing by third grade, I would have the opportunity for a voucher program. I would only have the opportunity to receive a voucher until I hit the age of intermediate school or the point that I would no longer be attending that particular school.

CHEN: So, I would have to go to that school for three years.

FARNSWORTH: Yes, exactly. Exactly

CHEN: Richard, can you talk to us about that distinction and whether that will make any difference in the debate over the voucher plans? RICHARD KAHLENBERG, THE CENTURY FOUNDATION: Well, I think ultimately, it won't. The American public is strongly supportive of public schools. The Bush proposal to divert money from public schools to the use of private schools is wildly unpopular, and so I can understand why they're running away from the voucher term.

I think that there's a lot that President Bush has contributed on this issue. He's said that kids who are trapped in failing schools ought to have alternatives, but I just would like to see that happen within the public school system. Give more choices to people within the public school...

CHEN: But you know...

KAHLENBERG: ... regime.

CHEN: I'm a parent. I look at my kid and I think, well, look if this school is not performing up to standards, why should I let my child be subject to this? Why should I not move him out into a better-performing school? Why don't I have the opportunity to get to that money?

FARNSWORTH: And that's exactly the issue with vouchers is, unfortunately, the students that have the least amount of choice of where to go to school are the ones that are typically living in the poorest communities.

Rich parents have a choice of where to send their kids to school. They can move to a different neighborhood. They can send their kids to a private school. There's all sorts of choices. Poor students don't have an option of where to go to school, and typically, students in poor neighborhoods go to least-performing schools.

CHEN: And on that, Richard, I mean we want to see public schools better, but look, if it's my kid at risk, I'm going to want to take him out and put him somewhere else.

KAHLENBERG: Oh, and I completely agree with that impulse. I'm not part of the group that says, let's reform public schools slowly over a generation's period. I think we have to have answers for those kids trapped in failing schools today.

I just think that it's more realistic to say let's provide opportunities for low-income kids to attend schools in middle-class areas; public schools, which are more accountable than private schools, and which offer the benefit of a good education...

CHEN: But then what happens to the failing public schools?

KAHLENBERG: Well, I think that in that instance, you can reconstitute the public school, and bring in a new principal. You can create certain programs that will be attractive to middle-class people. So, middle-class parents from suburban areas may choose to send their kid to an urban school that had previously been failing but now has a neat curriculum or a particular pedagogical approach. But all within the public school system. Historically, the public schools have played a very important role of assimilating immigrants of bringing us all together and I think that any voucher scheme loses that very important value.

CHEN: Megan, are you concerned for the public schools, the long- term prognosis for them if the voucher program comes into play?

FARNSWORTH: No, I think the vouchers programs will certainly create competition that will increase performance among the low- performing schools. If, for example, you take a look at Florida's voucher program which was established by Jeb Bush, the A+ program, the way that program was set up a school that received a failing grade two years in a row, those students would be eligible to get a voucher to go to another school.

After the first year of the program, of the 70 schools that originally would have qualified after the second year, only two sets of schools qualified for that program. So, the other schools worked their darndest and really made an effort to improve their student performance.

CHEN: Well, I think that we want -- everyone wants to see all of the schools succeed and do well.

FARNSWORTH: Absolutely, and certainly the problem is, we have spent a considerable amount of money over the last 30 years trying to improve education, and we keep talking about well, we need to pour more money into the public school system. If we just wait, if we're patient, our schools will improve and we're losing generations of children as we wait and slowly watch the public school education system change. Parents should not have to wait a generation for their kids to go to an improving school.

CHEN: Richard.

(CROSSTALK)

KAHLENBERG: I think we're in complete agreement on that, it's just that let's try to make this competitive process work within the public schools.

CHEN: Well, unfortunately, that's going to have to be the last for today. But I am sure that this is not the last that we have heard on this subject. Richard Kahlenberg, the Century Foundation; Megan Farnsworth joining as well from the Heritage Foundation. Thank you both.

FARNSWORTH: Thanks so much.

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