Educational technology has no place in the 2007 federal budget, but private-school vouchers do, according to Congressional Republicans, who on July 18 proposed a $100 million plan to let poor children leave struggling schools and attend private schools at public expense.

The voucher idea is one in a series of social conservative issues meant to energize the Republican base as midterm elections approach. In announcing their bills, House and Senate sponsors acknowledged the legislation is unlikely to come up for a vote this year.

Still, the move signals a significant education fight to come. GOP lawmakers intend to try to work their voucher plan into the No Child Left Behind law when it comes up for reauthorization next year.

“Momentum is on our side,” said Rep. Howard McKeon, R-Calif., chairman of the House education committee.

The Bush administration requested the school-choice plan, but the July 18 media event held to unveil it caused some awkwardness for the U.S. Department of Education (ED). The department had just released a study that raises questions about whether private schools offer any advantage over public ones.

Under the new legislation, the vouchers would mainly go to students in poor schools that have failed to meet their progress goals for at least five straight years.

Parents could get $4,000 per year to put toward private-school tuition or a public school outside their local district. They also could seek up to $3,000 per year for extra tutoring.

Supporters of the measure say poor parents deserve choices, like rich families have. When schools don’t work, said Education Secretary Margaret Spellings, “parents must have other opportunities.”

During Bush’s presidency, Congress approved the first federal voucher program in the District of Columbia, as well as private-school aid for students displaced by Hurricane Katrina. Lawmakers also have cut federal ed-tech funding from nearly $800 million when Bush took office to $276 million this year–and if administration officials get their way, the federal Enhancing Education Through Technology (EETT) program would be eliminated altogether in 2007.

So far, Congress has refused to approve Bush’s national voucher proposals. The latest plan is the first to target money for kids in schools that have fallen short under federal law.

Critics dismissed the GOP’s $100 million voucher announcement as an election-year gimmick and reiterated arguments against vouchers.

“Voucher programs rob public-school students of scarce resources,” said Reg Weaver, president of the National Education Association, the nation’s largest teachers union. “No matter what politicians call them, vouchers threaten the basic right of every child to attend a [high-]quality public school.”

Meanwhile, Spellings faced questions about her department’s handling of a new study comparing students in public and private schools. The report was quietly released on July 14.

ED’s independent National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) found that public schools perform as well as or better than private schools, with the exception of eighth-grade reading, in which private schools excelled. The results prompted questions from voucher critics about why taxpayer money should go toward private schools instead of toward improving public schools.

NCES looked at fourth- and eighth-grade reading and math scores from about 7,000 public schools and more than 530 private schools. Private-school students historically score higher, but in this study, NCES made adjustments to account for student demographics–such as socioeconomic factors and race–which leveled the playing field.

Conservative Christian schools, which typically favor vouchers, had scores significantly behind public schools in eighth-grade math, the study found. The NCES results mirrored similar findings from an earlier University of Illinois study on math.

Education Secretary Margaret Spellings told reporters at the GOP rally that she hadn’t yet read the NCES report. Even so, it was reported, she spoke of what she characterized as the study’s “modest sample.” NCES also cautioned that because schools are all very different, across-the-board comparisons of the two types of schools might be of “modest utility.”

Spellings also had this to say about the NCES research: “It was not an evaluation of how school vouchers, how scholarship programs, how additional resources work for low-income families trapped in chronically low-performing schools. I do see them as … apples and oranges issues.”

The study found that students with equivalent demographic characteristics do as well or better in public schools as in private schools. For instance, when scores were adjusted for characteristics such as school size, location, and the composition of the student body, the average for public schools was significantly higher than the average for private schools for grade 4 mathematics and not significantly different for reading.

Grover J. Whitehurst, director of ED’s Institute of Education Sciences, said NCES had not previously considered student variables. And although the study shows that taking such variables into account does change the research results, he said, the findings are of “limited value” because they represent only a “snapshot in time” without longitudinal significance.

Spellings said NCES must improve the way it releases such reports. She rejected any suggestion that the department sought to bury the study because it put public schools in a favorable light compared with private ones.

Links:

Education Department
http://www.ed.gov

“Comparing Private Schools and Public Schools Using Hierarchical Linear Modeling”
http://nces.ed.gov/pubsearch/pubsinfo.asp?pubid=2006461

House Committee on Education and the Workforce
http://edworkforce.house.gov

Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions
http://help.senate.gov