If school vouchers become the norm across our land, our most at-risk students will be even more at risk as limited public funds are drained off and redirected to unregulated, non-standardized factories of learning.
As a public school teacher in what I consider to be an excellent school district in the state of Texas, I suppose that one could say I have a biased view on the school voucher issue. But I’ve had a first-hand opportunity to compare education in both private and public sectors. While in the process of becoming certified to teach, I taught in two different private schools in this state. Yes, it’s true, there are public schools in Texas to which I would not send a son or daughter, one of them is right here in the city where my wife and I presently live. And, yes, it’s true, some private schools are superior to most public schools. But these schools are very expensive and their focus is almost always “formation” first, education second. This inequity, to my mind, is an intolerable situation, one that badly needs fixing in our state. But I’m convinced that vouchers are not the way to go about it.
Despite the arguments I hear about privatization ultimately infusing competition into the equation, thus stimulating innovation and motivation to produce superior educational services, and despite the claims of success for the limited programs that have been implemented in various communities, it takes little imagin- ation for me to see where a state-wide voucher program would lead. Let’s be clear. Economic theory and social goals are seldom on the same sides of the balance sheet.
Most teachers and parents are opposed to private school tuition vouchers. We know that public funds for vouchers will compete with dollars needed for general improvements in America’s public schools. The National Education Association (NEA) and its affiliates in every state agree. Collectively, those who know education best all oppose alternatives that divert attention, energy, and resources from efforts to reduce class sizes, enhance teachers’ performance, and provide every student in this country with books, computers, and safe, orderly schools. So, why are we even debating this issue? Why do politicians, conservatives mostly, ignore the experts on education? In a nutshell, it’s because they represent people who don’t want to pay the price that a quality education for every child in America would cost.
What follows are my arguments against school voucher programs:
First, America was founded on a concept of equity for its citizens, all of its citizens — equal justice under the law and equal oppor- tunity. Although the Tenth Amendment of the Constitution makes it clear that education is primarily a function of states’ govern- ments, time after time, the Supreme Court of the land has ruled in favor of educational equity. The Constitution of Texas includes these words, “A general diffusion of knowledge being essential to the preservation of the liberties and rights of the people, it shall be the duty of the Legislature of the State to establish and make suitable provision for the support and maintenance of an efficient system of public free schools.” This clearly establishes the priority for public rather than private education. Therefore, student achievement in all social-economic groups ought to be the driving force behind any education reform initiative.
Americans want fair, consistent standards for students. But where voucher programs are in place (Milwaukee, Cleveland, and Florida), a two-tiered system prevails that holds students in public schools to a different standard than those in private schools.
Second, what education in America really needs is help for the students, teachers, and schools that are struggling, not those who are doing well, those whose families would most benefit from implementation of voucher programs. The failure rate on TAKS tests in Texas clearly shows that children born to families in lower socio-economic circumstances are those who are at greatest risk and are, therefore, those who are in greatest need of assistance. For this reason, voucher programs are a terrible idea for solving America’s educational problems. True equity means that every child should be able to attend a good school. But voucher programs are not designed to help low-income children.
Milton Friedman himself, the founder of the voucher idea, dismissed the notion that vouchers can help low-income families. He said, and I quote, “It is essential that no conditions be attached to the acceptance of vouchers that interfere with the freedom of private enterprises to experiment.” Accordingly, I believe that a voucher system in Texas or any other state would only encourage economic, racial, ethnic, and religious stratification in our society.
Third, I believe in the separation of church and state. Vouchers would violate this principle because most private schools are parochial/religious schools, about eighty-five percent of them actually. So a state-wide voucher system would be a means for our more fundamental/Conservative citizens to circumvent Constitutional prohibitions against subsidizing religious practices and instruction.
Each year, according to the NEA, about $65 million dollars is spent by foundations and individuals to promote school voucher programs. In election years, voucher advocates spend even more on ballot measures and in support of pro-voucher candidates. In the words of political strategist, Grover Norquist, “We win just by debating school choice, because the alternative is to discuss the need to spend more money…”
Despite the efforts of school voucher proponents to make the debate about improving opportunities for low-income students and “school choice,” vouchers, in my opinion, remain an elitist strategy. From Milton Friedman’s first proposals, through the tuition tax credit proposals of Ronald Reagan, through the voucher proposals on ballots in California, Colorado, Utah and elsewhere, privatization strategies are not about expanding opportunities for low-income children or about improving education in general. Do not be fooled — they are about resisting meaningful, badly needed improve- ments, costly though they may be, to fix public education.
If school vouchers become the norm across our land, our most at-risk students will be even more at risk as limited public funds are drained off and redirected to unregulated, non-standardized factories of learning. These factories will turn out a few well-trained, socially and economically elite young men and women who have been programmed not to think, but to behave and vote the way they are told. The rest of our kids, sadly, will have been left behind despite the president’s “No Child Left Behind” law. Democracy, already weakened in this country by corporate culture, private interests, and voter apathy, will become oligarchy.
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