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PRIVATE SCHOOLS, PUBLIC DOLLARS

Inferior public schools should be held accountable for the damage they do to schoolchildren. But abandonment of the public school system should be a last resort, to be used only when school districts can't or won't improve bad schools or close failing ones.

President Bush has wisely incorporated that philosophy into his education proposal before Congress. That may disappoint some in the GOP right wing, but it is a responsible approach.

Voucher programs divert taxpayer money from public school districts to private schools, including religious ones. Under the Bush proposal, parents of children in failing schools would receive a taxpayer-funded voucher worth $1,500 a year, and could apply that to transportation costs to a better public school or tuition at a private school.

There are other options besides vouchers to address failing schools. Privately funded tuition assistance leaves public school funding untouched. But this region's BISON Fund has a 2,000-student waiting list, and nationally the $200 million Children's Scholarship Fund struggles with 1.25 million applications.

Full tax deductibility for private school tuitions might help the middle class but not those in poverty.

Charter schools - privately run public schools - offer the best middle-ground option, one already chosen by this state to spur competitive improvements.

Beyond policy, however, there is a more fundamental issue: whether voucher programs work. Some studies indicate student improvement, others don't.

With small local voucher systems now covering only about 20,000 of the nation's 53 million schoolchildren, tentative or even conflicting conclusions aren't surprising. There is some evidence linking improvements in individual student performance to smaller class sizes at their new schools, but there is concern, too, for the students left behind.

Education takes place in schools, but the emphasis on education and the instilling of love of learning starts at home. The flight of involved families who care enough to take action could degrade conditions at the school they flee into a deepening culture of continued failure.

Voucher systems also present an unintended danger to private religious schools. They would provide a welcome financial boost - but they could come with strings. School sponsors will have to weigh the risks of compromising the religious teaching that is part of their core mission, and educators in such schools must consider the added task of making sure children of different religions aren't marginalized within the school community.

Arguments that vouchers violate the traditional American separation of church and state have far less merit. Vouchers provide a benefit directly to parents, who then make private decisions on how to spend that benefit. Similar federal aid already supports tuitions at sectarian colleges and universities - and, in fact, voucher-system constitutionality issues already have passed muster in the Supreme Court.

The Bush administration has wisely softened its insistence on vouchers, saying they won't be a top priority. Moreover, vouchers would kick in only after three consecutive years of "failing" school ratings, and attempts at intervention. New York already has a similar rating-and-intervention system.

It is unconscionable for government to force parents to send their children to schools that can't or won't educate them. For that reason alone, voucher systems should not be rejected outright. The bottom line, as in all education issues, is giving children their best chance to learn. School choice is a powerful tool for parents and a sharp spur for school systems.

But any system must first try to improve existing public schools or close down failing ones. Abandoning public education should be an absolute last resort.

That said, public schools that can't or won't provide a decent education deserve no support - from the public or anybody else.

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