The Issues: School Vouchers

CBS News begins a month-long series – titled "What Does It Mean To You?" – focused on where the presidential candidates stand on major issues and how a vote for one or the other candidate might affect average people's lives.

In the first installment, CBS News Correspondent Byron Pitts looks at a key education issue: school vouchers.

At age 66, Catherine Hill of Washington, D.C., is both a grandmother and a guardian. She's now raising her brother's 7-year-old twins, Eric and Erica Brooks.

Mrs. Hill believes in education. And for three generations she believed in public education, raising her children, grandchildren and a host of relatives' children in the same neighborhood school where she volunteered.

But times have changed.

"When I first started volunteering at Park View years ago, you only had about nine or ten children in a class. Now you got 29, 30, 32 kids," she says. "And it's impossible for one teacher to reach 30 kids."

So Mrs. Hill signed up for a lottery of sorts, a first-in-the-nation pilot program giving some 1,500 public school children the opportunity to go to private schools on a $7,500 voucher.

"They said, 'Mrs. Hill you are one of the winners,'" she says. Her reaction? "Hallelujah, thank you Jesus, amen! Thank you Jesus! I must have said that maybe 15 or 20 times."

Selection day felt like a shopping spree, and every vender wanted her business.

"We have small class sizes. We have Spanish classes, gym glasses," said one school recruiter.

But the future of any federally funded voucher program will depend on who voters choose in November.

President Bush supports vouchers, arguing that school choice will give low-income families better options and make public schools more competitive. He would invest $50 million in pilot programs.

"This initiative is one that's the beginning of what I hope is change all across the county," the president has said.

Sen. John Kerry believes vouchers help too few students and that taxpayer dollars should not fund private schools.

Instead he would invest $150 billion in public education, make smaller classes and increase teacher pay. He says he would veto any voucher bill.

"Vouchers, I'm not for vouchers," Kerry says. "I think vouchers take away from the school system."

Public school principals like Charles Harden of Washington, D.C., side with Sen. Kerry.

Harden says that $7,500 would help his school's computer room. "We could upgrade our software," he says.

"Invest the time, invest the funds in the public schools to make them work if you are concerned," he adds.

As for Mrs. Hill, she says the voucher program won't just give her children a choice, it will give them a chance.

"The future for Eric and Erica now is that they're going to grow and they're going to turn out to be well-rounded, educated children," she says.