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Vouchers don’t equal school choice for disadvantaged

Pro-voucher groups, including Arizona’s Goldwater Institute, have labeled the choice by Barack and Michelle Obama to send their children to private school hypocritical. They seem to suggest that the Obamas’ choice would be more acceptable if the soon-to-be First Parents embraced the idea of vouchers and expected the government to pay part of the cost of their children’s tuition and subsidize their “choice.” Really≠
America is a land of choice and opportunity, and private schools have a place in our educational landscape to be sure. They are part of the framework of choice that also includes public schools, free charter schools and even home schooling. But private schooling is not the promise we as a country make to every child growing up in America. Our promise is that all children have access to a free, quality public education. It is the foundation of this country and the great equalizer that allows our children to see that anything is possible. The Obamas are embracing the uniquely American value of choice, while still supporting public education. You can do both, and the Obamas epitomize this.
It is galling to hear voucher advocates assert that vouchers would provide all children — particularly disadvantaged children or, in Arizona’s case, disabled students — with “the same choice as the Obamas.” In fact, vouchers undermine choice. They create false hope and make false promises to students and families. You see, despite the rhetoric of voucher proponents, it is the neediest among us who suffer the most because parents and students don’t get to choose a private school. The private school can choose them — or not.
Twenty percent of Arizona families with children have incomes that fall below the federal poverty limit for a family of four ($21,200). Twenty-seven percent of Arizona families with children make an amount above that federal poverty limit but under $42,400 (twice the federal poverty limit), which research suggests is the amount needed by a family of four just to meet basic needs.
Is paying even half of $30,000 per year tuition for a single child — the amount the Obamas reportedly will pay at Sidwell Friends — a reality for the 47 percent of Arizona families earning $42,400 per year or less. Of course not.
What if parents chose a private school that charged no more than the value of a voucher≠ Would all children interested in attending that private school be accepted≠ Of course not.
Do private schools have to uphold the same standards as public schools≠ Of course not. In fact, private schools are exempted from some of the most expansive legal protections to ensure every child is provided a quality education. And all the while, vouchers pull tax dollars from our public schools.
Contending that vouchers are the great equalizers is the real hypocrisy in this discussion. And so I close with the same words the Goldwater Institute used in a recent jab at the Obamas’ choice: “Do disadvantaged children deserve less≠” We think not, but with vouchers “less” is not just what disadvantaged children will get; “less” is what all children will get.
— Panfilo H. Contreras is the executive director of the Arizona School Boards Association.

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