Talk Story


School voucher programs
enter realm of possibility

A STUDENT'S essay against school vouchers was so good her Radford High School teachers put it on the Internet.

"The Constitution is supposed to promote the general well being of all citizens of the U.S.," she wrote. "That includes the students attending a failing school system, particularly in inner-city neighborhoods. These students deserve the same type of education that students with money are getting."

Inner-city schools aren't the main problem in Hawaii. A third of our public schools have failed to meet academic standards for two years running, but only eight of these 85 are in the Honolulu District. Twenty-four are on the Big Island, 21 in Leeward Oahu, 12 in Windward. Maui has 11, Central Oahu six, Kauai four.

"I'm against school vouchers," the student continued, "because they violate the First Amendment regarding the establishment of religion. ... We should fix the schools in Hawaii before the issue of school vouchers becomes an issue in the state."

It may be too late. The cat's out of the bag.

LAST WEEK, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled vouchers are not unconstitutional. In Zelman vs. Simmons-Harris, it found that public money would reach religious schools "only as a result of the genuine and independent choices of private individuals."

As a Wall Street Journal columnist put it: "The canard that school choice programs are an impermissible breach of the wall of separation between church and state has now been exploded."

Hawaii's Constitution prohibits using state money "for the support or benefit" of private or religious schools. Issuing vouchers directly to parents, not schools, conceivably could bypass that roadblock, too.

Hawaii officialdom isn't unfriendly to private schools, just to vouchers. The Legislature this year passed a measure proposing a constitutional amendment to issue special-purpose bonds for construction projects at nonprofit private schools. However, bills proposing a voucher amendment died in committee last year.

THE LEGISLATURE also nixed private-school tuition tax credits in 1999, but that issue should re-emerge. Just two months ago, the Supreme Court ruled states could allow individual taxpayers to deduct private-school tuition and expenses from their state income taxes.

Gov. Ben Cayetano backs choice, but through charter schools not vouchers. Hawaii's 22 charter schools each receive about $3,600 per student from the state. Per-pupil funding of Hawaii public schools, overall, is about $6,600.

Charter schools are free from Department of Education regulations, except for health and safety requirements and -- most importantly -- collective bargaining agreements.

While the anti-voucher constituency has changed over the years, teacher unions have remained stalwartly opposed. National Education Association counsel Robert Chanin has said the union will oppose vouchers "on whatever grounds are available to us -- from lofty principles ... to 'Mickey Mouse' procedural issues."

ETHNIC MINORITIES and groups like the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People traditionally have opposed vouchers, arguing that they drain students and resources from public schools.

However, a national poll in 1999 showed 68 percent of African Americans and 65 percent of Hispanics favored vouchers, compared to 57 percent of the general public. Another poll found blacks with children favored them by 74 percent.

Meanwhile, the affluent are split. Those who enjoy good public schools in their neighborhoods oppose vouchers, while those who send kids to private schools support them.

Some voucher backers hail Zelman as the greatest pro-education decision since Brown vs. Board of Education, which overturned racial segregation.

Only five states so far have voucher programs; five others offer tuition tax credits. Whether we'll ever see vouchers in Hawaii likely will depend on how new programs fare elsewhere.

At least now they are an option.

John Flanagan is the Star-Bulletin's contributing editor.
He can be reached at:

E-mail to Editorial Editor

Text Site Directory:
[News] [Business] [Features] [Sports] [Editorial] [Do It Electric!]
[Classified Ads] [Search] [Subscribe] [Info] [Letter to Editor]

© 2002 Honolulu Star-Bulletin