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The Dangers of Vouchers for Education

An Interview with Cathy Duffy

September 14, 2000

The following discussion was conducted live on a chat program hosted by Mary Leggewie.

Cathy Duffy has spent many years doing extensive educational research. As the author of 100 Top Picks for Homeschool Curriculum, she has researched curriculum and methodology for all subjects and all grade levels. She home educated her own three sons all the way through high school. Her extensive research and experience has made Cathy a popular speaker at conferences across the country as well as a leader in the home education movement.

Since Cathy's research convinced her of the value of individualizing education to achieve the best results for each child, she was alarmed at government efforts to standardize goals, outcomes, and methodology for all students. She began to investigate Goals 2000 and the restructuring movement and found that restructuring involved far more than the educational process. The results of her research appear in her book, Government Nannies: The Cradle-to-Grave Agenda of Goals 2000 and Outcome-Based Education. Her concerns about government schooling also prompted Cathy to get involved with the Children's Scholarship Fund, helping to create a $15 million private voucher program in Los Angeles in 1998-99. Her concern for maintaining educational freedom for both private campus and homeschools is her motivation for opposing Prop 38.

Vouchers keep coming up for discussion or election in just about every state, and they are on the ballot in California for November, 2000. Can you tell us about vouchers in general.

Cathy Duffy: Vouchers provide taxpayer money to parents for payment of tuition at a private school. The idea of vouchers has been floating around since at least the 1980's, but they've become a serious issue with the institution of programs in Milwaukee, Cleveland, and in Florida. As government schools continue to worsen, people are desperate for solutions. They see vouchers as a way to rescue children and either fix or destroy public schools, depending upon their perspective.

How does California Proposition 38 work?

Cathy Duffy: The California voucher, known as Proposition 38, will provide about $4,000 per child per year for children to be used to cover the costs of private schooling or private home education. Any excess money can be "banked" with the State Treasurer and applied against future education expenses up through college. Vouchers may be used at any voucher-receiving school. These schools agree to use standardized tests used by the state's public schools, not to discriminate, and not to advocate unlawful behavior.

Can homeschoolers participate?

Cathy Duffy: Private homeschoolers operate as private schools in California, so they would qualify for vouchers at this time. But don't get excited. You will probably never see any money. Instead, the voucher is likely to bring homeschoolers nothing but trouble.

Can you explain why this would be a problem for homeschoolers?

Cathy Duffy: There are some folks in the educational bureaucracy who have long been opposed to homeschooling. Yet, because homeschoolers by and large do extremely well academically and socially, they have had no valid reason to justify regulating home education.

We have about 120,000 homeschoolers in California at present. $4,000 vouchers for only one year for those students would cost the state $480 million. Given that the average cost of home schooling is somewhere between $500-$600, lots of people are likely to view this as unfair donations to college funds for homeschoolers. THIS will provide homeschool opponents with the justification for regulation.

This does nothing to change private school law; thus it does not fall under the 3/4 vote requirement that prevents new regulation of private schools. Any homeschool legislation we get in California will be more restrictive than the present situation. The result: no vouchers for homeschoolers since homeschools will no longer be private schools AND more regulation of homeschooling.

Is that 120,000 number the number who file the private school affidavit or a guestimate? I'm sure there are a lot of underground homeschoolers who file nothing.

Cathy Duffy: It's a conservative guestimate. I suspect it's actually more like 150,000.

Will vouchers hurt private schools?

Cathy Duffy: The history of government subsidies to private education both at home and abroad consistently demonstrates that subsidies are used to control the recipients. This is true with both direct and indirect funding. Colleges found out that even if their only connection to government money was that some of their students received government loans, the entire college falls under government control.

The most controversial controls have to do with "Title IX" which deals with diversity, non-discrimination, and tolerance. Hiring and student body quotas arose out of Title IX challenges. Rulings that colleges and universities have to fund men's and women's sports teams equally are another result.

We can examine the results thus far in the Milwaukee voucher program. I Milwaukee, court challenges resulted in additional regulations within the first few years. Among the most crucial regulations are requirements that schools not discriminate in the admissions process and that they allow any child to "opt out" of religious practices. This means Christian schools cannot give preference to Christian applicants, and if any child requests it he or she must be exempted from any activity that might be construed as religious. The latter challenge has yet to arise in these first few years, but you can safely predict that the best way for schools to respond will be by compartmentalizing all religious elements into religion class, maintaining a secular neutrality in all other classes. These two regulations alone will almost certainly change the very nature of a truly Christian school. The Florida program has these same restrictions. This is what the courts will allow. It should be interesting to note that Milwaukee voucher schools have been dragging their feet in regard to the admissions policy--probably because they are well aware of the danger to their schools.

Is it true that the Association of Christian Schools International (ACSI), the largest private school organization in the world, is in favor of vouchers?

Cathy Duffy: Is it true that the Association of Christian Schools International (ACSI), the largest private school organization in the world, is in favor of vouchers?

Why can't we have a voucher with no strings? There are some who say that you're just a fear monger. What makes you so sure. (OK, so I'm playing devil's advocate here--you know how I stand!)

Cathy Duffy: First the no strings question: The simple answer is a question: "Do you, as a taxpayer" want the government handing out money without adequate checks and controls? Most people are very aware of the rampant fraud in most government entitlement programs. On what grounds should we believe the voucher program will escape such attempts.

I set up the Children's Scholarship Fund program in Los Angeles. This is a private voucher program that offers scholarships averaging about $1,000 per child. When we began the program, we inherited 400+ scholarship recipients from a previous program. When we tried to "requalify" these students we uncovered an amazing amount of fraud on the part of both parents and schools. Less than 300 of the original group actually qualified by the time we were through. The problems will be huge with such large temptation. It's happened everywhere such programs have been tried.

Won't the 3/4 vote protection put us in better shape than we are right now? What protection would we have from that being changed to a simple 50% majority vote?

Cathy Duffy: It might provide some minimal protection, but it isn't the firewall it's touted to be. Attempts at fraud that prompt additional regulation would be almost impossible for any legislator to vote against--who wants to look soft on fraud? If a shady operator starts a school, collects voucher money for a semester or two, then flees, leaving a trail of unpaid bills and a school full of "stranded" children, you can just imagine the outcry for more oversight and control. Also, regulation can be brought in through other means. For instance, if a general law were passed requiring non-discrimination in hiring by all organizations (not just schools) that received government money directly or indirectly, then this could well apply to schools without a 3/4 vote since it doesn't single them out for particular attention. Also, George W. Bush's education platform calls for federally-funded vouchers. Federal regulation will follow federal money, preempting any state protections.

What about the legislation that passed that might force some Christian schools to hire homosexual teachers?

Cathy Duffy: Actually the homosexual legislation is a classic case of why private schools should not take any government money. These new laws actually apply only to those schools that receive either direct or indirect government funding AND are not directly controlled by a church. Thus, the simple answer for these schools is to stop taking government funds. Private schools that do not take government money, directly or indirectly, are not affected by these laws.

But that would mean that they can't take voucher money, which could also cause those schools to lose their student bodies, couldn't it?

Cathy Duffy: It certainly could. That's the dilemma schools face--take the money and the control that comes with it, or refuse the money and probably go out of business.

Perhaps this is redundant, but why do you think we shouldn't be able to get vouchers or something like this; after all, it's "our money?"

Cathy Duffy: Our state and local taxes pay for a host of services: roads, water projects, streetlights, police, fire protection, libraries, AND schools. Jim Davis of Private and Home Educators of California did an analysis to figure out how much the average family pays toward education. The average family's income is $45,000 and they own a house worth $160,000. When you take into account state income tax, property tax, and sales tax, this average family pays about 39% of its tax money toward schooling--the dollar amount is $1,555. Obviously, this is far short of the $4,000 voucher amount. So most parents who receive vouchers will not be "getting their own money back." They will be getting SOME of their money back plus another $2,445 from other taxpayers. And if they have more than one child, those other children are funded entirely by other taxpayers. Yes, it's not fair that some people pay taxes for an education system they don't use, but it's also unfair to the childless and the elderly. The only safe and fair way to "reclaim" your money would be by lowering taxes for everyone. But, then, who would fund government schools?

We all know that the government schools are a mess. We have to do something! What else can we do?

Cathy Duffy: When compulsory schooling and the common school system were developed in the middle of the 19th century, there were warnings and predictions about the results. But, it took about 150 years for government schools to fulfill the direst predictions. And now that it's happened, we shouldn't expect to retrace that 150 years overnight. Many voucher advocates are reacting in panic: they want to do something no matter how foolish it might turn out to be and as long as there's some possibility of some short term gain.

But I'm concerned about my grandchildren and future generations as well. If in trying to provide a quick solution to the problem of government schools we do harm to private schools, what will we have gained? It doesn't take long for government subsidized private schools to resemble their directly government-funded counterparts. At that point, there will be no place to go for a good education, since both public and private schools will offer the same education.

There are some safe solutions, but they won't produce magical results. Among those solutions:

  1. privately-funded voucher programs.
  2. encouraging and assisting families that choose to home school.
  3. helping to develop and offer low cost private education solutions such as:"community schools" where children attend classes three days a week, then work on assignments at home the other two days OR...on-line education that uses technology to reduce class delivery costs.
  4. helping some families learn to live on tighter budgets so they can afford private school. (a really tough one)

Do you think that the goal of the Alliance for the Separation of School and State of ridding our nation of government-run, tax-funded schools is possible to achieve?

Cathy Duffy: If you had asked most people one year before the Berlin Wall fell if it was possible for such a thing to happen, most would have denied its possibility. But things got so bad that the system could no longer sustain itself. I don't know how bad government schools have to get before parents quit sending their children. Obviously, many parents have already chosen private and home school for that very reason. But how many need to leave before the system collapses? Nobody knows. We don't need a frontal attack on government schools--they're doing very well on their own self-destruction. If we simply keep working on the positive alternatives, expanding opportunities for more and more children, one family at a time, eventually, nobody will want to keep the government schools.

What can we do to help fight Proposition 38, and is there any influence that people out of California can have to help those of us here in California?

Cathy Duffy: There are heavily financed propaganda campaigns on both sides of Prop 38. Most people are not getting accurate information. You can help by passing on accurate information so people can make well-informed decisions. The California initiative is only a part of the nationwide voucher debate. Governor Bush has made federally-funded vouchers part of his platform. We could soon find ourselves with federal money (and federal controls) of private schools through federal vouchers--an even worse situation. So this is an important issue for everyone, no matter in which state you live.

What about those public charter school homeschool programs? Can you tell us a little about your feelings on those?

Cathy Duffy: Charter schools are a great example of growing government intrusion. Many of the people who touted charter schools are behind vouchers. They promised that charter schools would be wonderful because they would be free of red tape and regulation. Every year they get more regulation--4 new bills regulating them this year alone!

There are other reasons to be concerned about Christian participation in charter schools--many of the same reasons I don't believe Christians should send their children to traditional government schools. The more insidious problem with charter schools is that some school operators and some parents are disobeying state law law (that forbids use of sectarian teaching materials) and using Christian materials for their curriculum. And if they're not doing that, then they're using secular curriculum and, in effect, teaching their children that God is so unimportant we can learn about all the important subjects at school without including God. It presents an insurmountable double bind for Christians.

If Prop 38 fails, do you think we are still heading for a homeschool law in California? As it is now, we homeschool in a rather "gray" area by completing paperwork that makes our home a private school.

Cathy Duffy: I suspect there might be such efforts, but the authorities have no "political cover" for passing such a law IF we don't take government money and continue to do well in academic performance. Homeschoolers are more than capable of mounting a massive telephone assault on legislators if they try to regulate us without justification.

Many thanks to Cathy Duffy for sharing her thoughts with us here at HomeschoolChristian.com!

HomeschoolChristian.com articles related to this interview:

The Dangers of Vouchers
Charter School Seduction

For further reading: