Is education one of your top priorities in the State Legislative races in LD-26? If so, your choice comes down to this: Do you like the idea of vouchers for private schools, or don’t you?

All three candidates will tell you they’re big supporters of public education. They want more money for schools, higher teacher salaries and lower class sizes. No surprises there. If asked, I’m sure they’d all take equally bold stands in support of motherhood and apple pie.

But on the issue of vouchers, there’s a clear split, or an almost-clear split. All three Democrats – Cheryl Cage (Senate) as well as Don Jorgensen and Nancy Young Wright (House) — are opposed to vouchers. Two of the Republicans – Al Melvin (Senate) and Marilyn Zerull (House) — support vouchers. The third Republican – Vic Williams (House) — raised his hand at an educational forum when asked if he opposed vouchers, but at the Clean Elections debate a week earlier he said he supported a pilot voucher program. This is a typical Williams strategy: try to woo conservatives and moderates by taking stands on both sides of as many issues as you can.

While I’m listing party affiliations here, I’m a Democrat who wants to see more Southern Arizona Democrats elected to the State Legislature. I’m also a retired high school English teacher who cares deeply about education. Just so you know.

Vouchers for private schools are a terrible idea in my opinion, and voters nationwide agree. Since the 1970s, 11 out of 11 state propositions advocating vouchers have gone down to resounding defeat. But the Republican base rallies around the voucher banner, and lots of conservative politicians agree. Bush’s Department of Education has pumped about $70 million into promoting vouchers in the past seven years, and McCain would bring us more of the same pro-voucher agenda. (When you hear the “Straight Talker” say he’s for “School Choice,” keep listening until he gets to the end of the sentence. You’ll hear him mumble “vouchers” somewhere in the middle of his list of choices.)

Private schools have nearly absolute control over what they teach, which is as it should be. So long as a school run with private dollars isn’t putting children in danger, the government shouldn’t interfere with its educational practices. But vouchers change that. The state has the obligation to oversee and regulate schools getting tax dollars. So vouchers give us two bad options. Either publicly funded “private” schools are allowed to hide their education behind classroom walls, or the government steps in and regulates the way they teach.

Well over 70 percent of Tucson’s private schools are religious, which is pretty close to the national average. Government definitely shouldn’t control religious expression, but tax dollars shouldn’t be spent supporting religion, either. We give government funding to faith-based social programs, but only if a wall is created between the funded programs and religious teaching. It’s impossible to erect that kind of wall when your task is educating children. Education in religious schools is religious education, by definition. And that’s fine by me, so long as tax dollars aren’t subsidizing it.

Once we take religious schools out of the voucher equation, most of the remaining schools charge between $8,000 and $12,000 tuition (religious school tuition tends to be lower). Poor and middle class families with $4,500 vouchers in their hands (that’s the amount-per-child usually cited) don’t have the means to make up the difference. So what we end up with is state-funded partial scholarships for wealthy children to go to the schools their parents would have sent them to anyway. Subsidies for wealthy families. That’s not my idea of a good use of scarce state funds.

So, vouchers or no vouchers? Your vote. Your choice.

David Safier is a regular contributor to Blog for Arizona.

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