|Special Section on Vouchers|
|When people talk about school "choice," what do they mean?
People generally are talking about voucher plans that allow tax dollars to be used for tuition at private schools, including religious schools. School choice is also used to refer to proposals that let students choose a particular public school, either in their district or another district.
There are two programs providing public dollars to pay tuition for low-income students to attend private schools, in Milwaukee and Cleveland. Both include religious schools, which raises issues of the separation of church and state. The legality of the programs will ultimately be decided by the U.S. Supreme Court.
Voucher proposals or similar initiatives have been debated in 28 states. Many only provide vouchers for partial tuition and thus inherently privilege the middle class. On a national level, Republican legislators have spearheaded efforts to institute various tax schemes -- such as tuition tax credits or tax-free savings accounts for education -- that are targeted at the middle class.
In a number of cities and states, there are also privately funded initiatives to provide partial tuition for low-income children to attend private schools. By and large, these private measures are designed to build political support for publicly funded vouchers.
First, there is legitimate dissatisfaction with the failures of the public schools. In urban areas, in particular, far too many schools are failing our children.
Second, and most important, there has been a conservative counterrevolution against public services, and the solution to society's problems is posed in terms of the marketplace and privatization. Getting rid of our system of public education would be the final coup in the conservative attempt to reduce the role of government in providing social services for the good of all. Within the Republican Party and the Religious Right, vouchers and similar initiatives are the top educational priority.
Third, we have to consider whether there is a relationship between the willingness to abandon urban schools and the fact that the leadership and student population of urban schools are increasingly people of color.
Fourth, it's important to look at how businesses and wealthier individuals can directly profit from privatizing education. Middle-class parents who are already sending their children to private schools, for example, will get government aid to help pay the tuition. Also, some businesses hope to make money by setting up for-profit private schools or getting contracts for different educational services.
Parents and students must have choices. No one would disagree with that. Nor is anyone criticizing the right to a privately funded education.
We do not fault parents for doing what they think is best for their children. But we have little sympathy for those who advocate vouchers as anything more than a temporary solution for a limited number of children and who instead claim it is the silver bullet that will end our education problems.
When it comes to public policy and public schools, there is a responsibility to go beyond individual concerns and promote what is best for all children. In the long run, establishing two school systems -- one public and one private, yet both supported with tax dollars -- will only expand the ability of private schools to pick and choose the most desirable students and will only widen the gap between the haves and have-nots.
It's impossible to think about public education without understanding its relationship to our country's quest for democracy. Schools are the place in this society where children from a variety of backgrounds come together and, at least in theory, try to learn to talk, play, and work together. Schools are by no means equal and play a significant role in maintaining our highly stratified society. At the same time, there is no comparable arena in this country where there is a vision of equality, no matter how much this vision may be tarnished in practice.
The core issue is that individuals would be paying tax money to support schools with religious values that might be antagonistic to their own religious values.
Religion is a profoundly private matter and should remain that way.
Some low-income families might benefit from voucher plans. But most poor people would still go to public schools, and these schools would have fewer resources because taxpayer money would be going into private schools.
Most important, the moving forces behind vouchers hope to ultimately open vouchers to all students, not just low-income students. Quite frankly, low-income students are being used as pawns in a much larger struggle to privatize our system of public education.
If policymakers who promote vouchers really want to further equity, they should consider vouchers in the range of $10,300 -- the median tuition at private high schools in the National Association of Independent Schools. And they would force private schools to accept all students who apply, based on a lottery system. But there's no voucher plan anywhere in the country that offers adequate money or adequate safeguards against discrimination.
Voucher supporters often shout the "monopoly" accusation but ignore the highly decentralized nature of American education. There are over 15,000 school districts in this country and they vary significantly in demographics, tax bases, governance, and curriculum. Most education decisions are made at the district level. Unlike other industrialized countries, our federal government plays only a modest role in education.
Certainly, competition can spark creativity, and in good public schools teachers compete amicably to better serve students. But competition can also create social disasters. Just look at the health care industry, or the flight of U.S. jobs to low-wage developing countries.
Many teachers honestly question whether the marketplace will magically lead to quality. They work passionately to improve schools and worry what will happen when the seats are filled up in the private schools and there are still millions of children left to attend a public school system depleted of resources.