LLOYD GRAY: Steer clear of vouchers

By Lloyd Gray/NEMS Daily Journal

We’re going to get an expanded charter school law, it seems clear. Even some traditional public school advocates now believe a limited charter bill could be helpful.
Opinions differ on how broad a charter law should be, and no doubt some of the senators who opposed a bill that passed 34-17 last week would have voted for it had it restricted charters to low performing school districts. But a good argument can be made that a limited number of charters, freed from much state regulation, can serve specific needs in targeted areas and ultimately be one element that helps make the system better for everyone.
The same can’t be said for another “innovation” in the works in the state Senate – vouchers.
Charter schools direct taxpayer funds to schools that, while under different oversight than traditional public schools, still are accountable under the same state measurements. They are still public schools; enrollment is open and free.
Vouchers, on the other hand, would permit tax dollars to follow students to private or religious schools. This issue is fraught with pitfalls, not the least of which is that it’s unconstitutional.
That’s not a legal argument based on an interpretation of the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. It’s a factual statement based on Section 208 of the Mississippi Constitution that prohibits public funds going to “sectarian” schools or any school that isn’t free.
So to advance consideration of vouchers, the chairman of the Senate Constitution Committee – Sen. Michael Watson, R-Pascagoula – has introduced a resolution to repeal Section 208. As with any constitutional amendment, it would require passage in the Legislature and voter approval.
As an article on today’s front page recounts, this section is similar to many in state constitutions around the country. Mississippi’s constitution was written in 1890, a time of increasing concern about public funding going to Catholic schools as a new wave of Eastern European immigration was in progress. But its origins aside, the premise of this constitutional provision is sound: Public funds shouldn’t be spent on private or religious schools.
This is especially true in Mississippi, where educational resources are scarce and where most private schools were created in the 1960s and ‘70s largely as a means for whites to avoid integration of public schools. Most such schools now are officially non-discriminatory, but they have divided communities educationally in ways that have severely hampered many public school systems.
Private schools are free to offer their own scholarships to children who couldn’t otherwise afford to attend, and many do. But asking the public to foot the bill is an entirely different matter.
Public funds need to be kept in public schools. Options within a public system – publicly financed and accountable – are one thing, and we’re likely to have more of those in Mississippi with charter schools. But when state funding for public schools doesn’t even meet the requirements of adequacy spelled out in state law, draining funds from schools required to serve everyone doesn’t make sense, much less pass constitutional muster.
Lloyd Gray is executive editor of the Daily Journal. Contact him at (662) 678-1579 or lloyd.gray@journalinc.com.