Voucher Argument Fails Republicans

School vouchers are still a hot topic in some Republican circles in Colorado, particularly in one Jefferson County race where education issues have always been a top priority.
The vouchers issue probably single-handedly killed the campaign of Republican Ramey Johnson in House District 23 (Lakewood and Golden) in 2004. Johnson was the incumbent state representative at the time, and after a tough challenge from Democrat Gwyn Green, she ended up losing by just a few dozen votes when the final ballots were meticulously counted weeks after the election.

The dagger in the heart of Johnson’s campaign came from two high-profile Republicans –- former U.S. Rep. Bob Schaffer and well-known Republican donor Alex Cranberg — who wanted to punish Johnson because she didn’t support school vouchers. Mailings went out just before the end of the election that were critical of Johnson, and were it not for that last-minute maneuver, she may have held on to her seat.

Johnson is running again in 2006, but this time she faces a Republican primary with former Jefferson County Commissioner Pat Holloway, and the attacks against Johnson are continuing from familiar sources. As The Denver Post reported:

Former Rep. Ramey Johnson said school voucher supporters Alex Cranberg and former Republican U.S. Rep. Bob Schaffer were using a “phony” community newspaper called “Common Sense for Jefferson County” to attack her stance on school choice.

In 2004, Schaffer sent a letter to voters in Johnson’s District 10 days before the election, she said, criticizing her vote against a school voucher program, saying she was “refusing to put children first.”

Johnson lost that race by 48 votes to Democratic Rep. Gwyn Green. Johnson and some Republicans privately blamed Cranberg and Schaffer for costing the party the seat and, in part, control of the House.

This year, the March and June issues of Common Sense carried a story that says, “Johnson routinely sided with Democrats to thwart Republican school-choice initiatives” and has since flip-flopped on the issue. She said she has not changed her position. Johnson said she was not surprised by the article because “at this point, it’s a vendetta.”

Cranberg and Schaffer are strong voucher proponents because they believe that parents should be allowed to use their tax dollars to pay for a school of their choice. They believe that parents shouldn’t have to fund what they view as failing public schools if they want to spend money to send their children to a private school.

On the other side, one of the main arguments against vouchers are that they can’t possibly provide enough incentive for low-income families to move their children to better performing schools; a $1,500 voucher isn’t going to be enough to allow a low-income family to move their child to a $10,000-a-year private school, for example.

That may no longer be the best argument against vouchers anymore, however. A report that came out two weeks ago –- which didn’t get much publicity -– shows that public school students actually outperform private school students in most subjects. The report doesn’t come from some public-school happy organization, either; it comes right from the Department of Education, whose leaders under President Bush have made no secret of their love for private schools and the idea of voucher-like programs.

As the New York Times summarized on July 18:

That report examined test scores of 700,000 fourth and eighth graders at public schools and those of 25,000 private school students. It found that when students of like economic, racial and family backgrounds were compared, public school students did as well as or better than those in private school in fourth grade reading and math and in eighth grade math. The exception was eighth grade reading, in which private school students did better.

Opponents of school vouchers seized on those findings. Citing the report, Ralph Neas, president of the liberal nonprofit group People for the American Way, said: ”The goal of this movement isn’t to help students. It’s to achieve vouchers at any cost.”

Or as the motives of Cranberg and Schaffer prove, defeat at any cost a candidate – even a Republican – who also opposes vouchers. No common sense is allowed in this school of debate.

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Jason Bane

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