Charles Nailen/The Hoya Kevin Chavous and Krista Kafer discuss the issue of vouchers in St. Mary’s Hall on Wednesday.

The question of whether vouchers should be legal in the U.S. education system was discussed at a bipartisan panel on Wednesday afternoon in St. Mary’s Hall. D.C. Councilman Kevin Chavous (D), chair of the Education Committee, and Krista Kafer, Senior Policy Analyst for education at the Heritage Foundation, a non-profit Washington, D.C., based think-tank, led the discussion.

While both figures supported vouchers and the idea of school choice, Chavous also emphasized the importance of charter schools.

A voucher allows the recipient to subsidize a portion of the tuition at a private school using money that the government spends for that student in a public school. “Vouchers cover a wide variety of options including home schooling, public, charter schools, private schools and tax credits,” Kafer said.

Chavous said that traditional public education has not changed much over the last 150 years, despite the significant changes that have occurred in the U.S. over the same time. “This was not a diverse country [then], but `one size fits all’ does not work today,” he said. “Today children have different needs, different backgrounds.”

Kafer agreed that children should go to schools that cater to their needs and interests, using anecdotal evidence to bolster her position. “My sister lost her taste for learning math in her public school,” she said. “I’d like to see her in a smaller environment.”

Chavous maintained that charter schools were another option for parents. The autonomous nature of charter schools may ameliorate the problems of traditional bureaucracy, he said.

Chavous said charter schools are necessary because there are not enough private schools in the District to accommodate the children who would want to transfer to private schools after receiving vouchers. “Republicans impose vouchers in D.C.,” he said. “All the freedom movements have succeeded by registering their views from bottom to top, not from top to bottom.”

He also argued charter schools are effective, citing the 12,000 children in the District who attend charter schools. Statistically, 17 -18 percent of students in the District public school system are in charter schools. “I’d like to have more charter schools in D.C. and raise this percentage to 35,” he said.

Competition was also touted as an advantage of endorsing charter schools. “I’ll sound Republican, but competition does work,” Chavous said. “The only way our traditional bureaucracy responds is the threat of charter schools.” Public schools will lose $11,000 for every student that uses a voucher to go elsewhere, he said. “It is an incentive to change [for public schools],” he said.

Kafer also spoke about the results of the National Assessment of Education Progress test. She said 50 percent of the poor and minority students were scoring at sub-par levels. “Poor and minority students are left behind,” she said.

According to Kafer, vouchers raise achievement for minority students, closing the gap between white and black students and that the test results of private schools are better than the test results of public school students with equal demographics.

Kafer read a letter written by a mother whose son received a scholarship from the Washington Scholarship Fund, which provides low-income families with partial grants for private school tuition. The woman had previously worked two jobs in order to fund her son’s tuition in a private school.

The letter explained that reducing class size and increasing the funding and technology of the schools did not bring the change everyone hoped. “Giving the parents freedom and personal initiative to choose works,” she said.

Kafer also mentioned the Zelman v. Simmons-Harris Supreme Court ruling determining that the school voucher program in Cleveland was constitutional. The court claimed that vouchers abided by the separation of church and state doctrine, despite the fact that almost all the families who received state tuition scholarships attended Catholic schools.

“Vouchers should be neutral to religion,” she said. While 10 states currently employ active vouchers and tax credits, some have options available to parents including private, public schools and tutoring. “I would like to see that system in every state where parents are enabled to choose,” she said.

The discussion was sponsored by the College Democrats and the College Republicans.

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