The state Education Department is considering whether to allow parents to take the tax money they would pay for public schooling with them to private schools when enrolling their children there because of inadequate neighborhood schools.
The proposal, which would require approval of the State Legislature and the governor, was opposed this week by the president of the Buffalo Teachers Federation, among others.
"It will just be an additional subsidy for people who already plan to send their children to private schools," said union chief Philip Rumore.
The proposal by State Education Commissioner Thomas Sobol is part of a package called "A New Compact for Learning" to guide state education into the 21st century, with an emphasis on getting results. Judith P. Fisher, president of the Buffalo Board of Education, said the proposal is limited and would provide:
Choice within a district, such as Buffalo Public Schools already offer through 23 magnet programs.
Choice across district lines -- from city to suburbs, for example -- if both districts agree to such a policy.
The option for parents to remove children from public schools and take funding with them if the state finds that the neighborhood school is failing to educate children adequately and cannot or will not improve.
Private schools would cheer such an arrangement, says Thomas Fulton, headmaster of the Park School in Amherst.
"The public school is not the only store in town," Fulton said. "The proposal would give the opportunity to attend private or parochial school without money being a problem. I believe Park would welcome it and would also give scholarship aid."
Rumore questioned whether a child from a poor family, who would have to depend on tax aid and scholarship aid alone, really could interact with more affluent private school children outside the school environment.
"Does anyone really believe that a poor child from Buffalo, who could easily keep up academically in those private schools, ever will be allowed to fit in with that society without the cars, fancy clothes, et cetera?" he asked.
Ronald J. Cook, superintendent of schools for the Catholic Diocese of Buffalo, said New York City parochial schools have shown they can succeed with children from public schools that fail to allow the children to make progress.
"These kids are in desperate straits," Cook said. "We need these kinds of
experiments. These kids deserve to achieve."
Christopher Carpenter, a state Education Department spokesman, said the proposal is aimed particularly at New York City, where hundreds of schools are regarded as failing year after year.
The only other available schools within the neighborhoods are parochial schools, he said.
Rumore sees the proposal, which will go before the Board of Regents sometime next year, as the entering wedge that would allow fairly affluent parents to take their children's school-support dollars wherever the parents want. Ms. Fisher said she would accept choice in a limited way to help shape up failing schools, but only as a last resort.
"I'm opposed to vouchers for private education in general," she said.
Buffalo Public Schools are a model for choice within a school district, said Bettye Blackman, Central District board member. "There are 20 different programs in the Buffalo Vocational Technical Center alone," she said.
But an option for parents to withdraw both a child and support money to pay for tuition elsewhere would be a problem for a public school system, she said.
"If we're going to have a public school system in this country, our focus has to be on public education," she said.
Rumore questioned taking away money from schools that must admit anyone to subsidize tuition in schools that can refuse or expel children with problems.
"Private and parochial schools have the ability to remove students who are disruptive, who are far behind in their subject or who do not fit in," Rumore said. "They may have a very select personnel."
Carpenter views the choice proposal in the commissioner's plan as very limited. Once the community becomes aware that a school is failing, considerable pressure is put on the school to straighten out, he said.
In Buffalo, a few schools in the past received reprimands from the state. School Superintendent Albert Thompson said intensive efforts are made to turn such schools around. Triangle Academy in South Buffalo improved so markedly that it became a national school of excellence.
Thompson opposes any voucher policy that would allow parents of public school children to receive subsidies so they could afford private schools.
Edward J. Sakowski, executive director of the Erie County Association of School Boards, said suburban school districts also oppose a voucher system.
"We would be opposed to choice within public and private or parochial schools when the choice is funded by public funds," Sakowski said.