SANTA FE, New Mexico - To the dismay of the National Education Association, the nation's largest teachers' union, and many U.S. educational experts, a growing number of America's governors want to subsidize parents who send their children to private schools.
Pilot voucher programs are underway in Minnesota and Wisconsin. Tax credits are offered in Iowa and Arizona. And at least 24 states are considering similar plans.
At a meeting sponsored by the National Conference of State Legislators in Santa Fe, New Mexico over the weekend officials debated the pros and cons of this highly controversial approach to improving the U.S. education system.
The principals in the policy debate were NEA President Robert Chase, a champion of public education, and school privatization advocate Chester E. Finn, an education policy official in the Reagan administration who heads a Washington foundation that promotes school choice.
"Turning education over to private forces is bad public policy," said Chase, reciting a litany of reasons, including a purported weakening of community ties, why vouchers and tax credits will destroy the public school system.
"Opponents to the market place approach don't want even to experiment," Finn said.
"We are already seeing signs in some places of spill over effects of the market place - school systems are starting to change," he added.
Chase contended that vouchers and tax credits assist only a few students while taking money away from successful school reform efforts. Students carry their per pupil funding with them if they use vouchers or parental choice to flock to alternative schools. "Why rescue a few students at the expense of many?" he asked.
"Whose dollars are these?" Finn replied. "If you listen to Bob you might get the idea that the money belongs to the public school system." Finn argued that the money belongs to the children getting educated.
He said that school districts should be allowed to contract out services to the private sector. He added that charter schools held to standards by a public authority should be permitted. And vouchers and tax credits for private school students are all reforms that will work better than fiddling with the existing public schools system as has been done to no avail in the past, Finn said.
Though vouchers and tax credits are favored by many governors, almost all of them Republican, getting them through state legislatures is proving easier said then done.
New Mexico's Republican Gov. Gary Johnson failed over the weekend to pass his school voucher pilot program. It was shelved on a party line vote in the Democratic-controlled House Education Committee.
Johnson has threatened to call a special session of the legislature, or veto the entire public school spending plan, if lawmakers do not approve his voucher plan.
Texas Gov. George W. Bush, the putative early favorite for next year's Republican presidential nomination, has also had trouble getting his voucher program passed. Officials representing Texas at the conference said Bush would win approval of a limited voucher system before the biennial session of the legislature concludes.
Many states are waiting to see how the issue plays out in the courts in lawsuits that have been filed. They argue that vouchers and tax credits tend to benefit religious schools, and thus violate the Constitutional doctrine of separation of church and state.
Advocates of these measures have been cheered by some recent favorable rulings, most notably in Arizona. In late January, the Arizona Supreme Court upheld that state's tax credit program on a 3-2 vote.
"Schools are no more than indirect recipients of taxpayer contributions, with the final destination of these funds being determined by individual parents," the court said.
The U.S. Supreme Court gave supporters of vouchers something to cheer about by refusing to review a Wisconsin Supreme Court decision upholding a 1995 Wisconsin law that expanded Milwaukee's voucher program to include religious schools.