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School vouchers stir nationwide debate

Posted: Wednesday, August 07, 2002

WASHINGTON -- Like many Americans, Steve Klug likes the idea of providing school vouchers to parents that would give them a choice between public and private schools for their children. But the father of two quickly loses enthusiasm when he hears that tax-supported vouchers would probably drain money from public schools.

''Now that gets confusing,'' said Klug, a 51-year-old cook from Glenellyn, Ill.

Those mixed feelings are reflected in the findings of an Associated Press poll on school vouchers. The poll conducted for The AP by ICR/International Communications Research of Media, Pa. showed people favored the idea of school vouchers to help send children to private or parochial schools by a 51-40 margin. When asked if they still support the idea if it takes money from public schools, they oppose vouchers by a 2-to-1 margin.

Klug has his children in good public schools in his community just west of Chicago, and he is wary of any plan that would take money away from those schools.

The proposal of funneling tax money to private and parochial schools, and the likelihood that would drain money from public schools, is a hot political topic. About half of Repub-licans, Democrats and independents support the idea of school vouchers to give low-income children a choice in schools. Young adults were more likely than older Americans to support such vouchers.

When the possibility is mentioned that vouchers could take money from public schools, Republican support drops to just under one in four while Democratic support drops to a fourth. The support drops to three in 10 with independents.

The U.S. Supreme Court ruled in late June that school voucher programs are constitutional if they provide parents a choice among a range of religious and secular schools. The court endorsed a 6-year-old pilot program in inner-city Cleveland that provides parents a tax-supported education stipend. Parents may use the money to opt out of one of the worst-rated public school systems in the nation.

The issue is still a source of turmoil within the courts. In Florida, a circuit judge ruled Monday that the state constitution forbids the use of tax money to send children to religious schools. The decision could affect up to 400 students who hoped to participate this year in the nation's only statewide voucher system.

Some in the poll said their support for vouchers is fueled by their frustration with public schools.

''If public education got its act together, then we wouldn't need vouchers,'' said Ann Strickland, a 68-year-old retired nurse from Miami. ''It's not the fault of these kids that the school isn't good enough to teach them.''

The Supreme Court ruling cleared a constitutional cloud from vouchers, an education idea popular with political conservatives and championed by President Bush. Opponents say they will siphon tax money from struggling public schools.

The debate now continues state by state.

Lawmakers in as many as 20 states are poised to push school voucher legislation, now that the Supreme Court has ruled that these programs do not violate the Constitution's requirement of separation of church and state.

Lawmakers in California, Texas, Pennsylvania, Colorado, Kansas and Missouri are ready to move on voucher programs, while Congress could consider one as early as this fall for students in the District of Columbia. But it could be months or even a year or more before legislatures develop such voucher programs, officials say.

More than half in the poll, 56 percent, said private schools that accept taxpayer-funded vouchers should be required to accept all students who apply, while just over a third, 37 percent, said the schools should be allowed to choose who they accept. Republicans were evenly split on that question, while almost two-thirds of Democrats said they should accept all and about six in 10 independents felt that way.

The poll of 1,011 adults was taken July 17-21 and has an error margin of plus or minus 3 percentage points. Those in the poll who had children under 18 now living with them were about evenly split on whether they would take school vouchers if they were available.

Mike Stachowiak a 26-year-old resident of Nanticoke, Pa., is not a parent now, but said he plans to be one day. He isn't sure whether he would take vouchers for his own child.

''The vouchers wouldn't cover the entire cost of the private school,'' he said. ''It depends on how much more I would have to dish out.''



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