The trouble with vouchers

The Louisiana Supreme Court dealt Louisiana’s expanded voucher program a significant blow on May 7, when it declared that the governor could not, in fact, dip into the state’s constitutionally-allocated public school funding (known as the Minimum Foundation Program) in order to pay for it. The governor was quick to whip out the silver lining in this dark policy cloud, stating that the court had merely rejected his proposed funding but had not declared the concept of vouchers inherently illegal. And he’s right–vouchers aren’t unconstitutional or illegal, they’re just a really really bad idea.

Voucher proponents tout the idea of giving money that would otherwise go to public schools to private or charter schools as a way of giving poor kids a way to get a quality education that they would not otherwise have access to. Some of the people making this argument are parents who genuinely think this is a novel and good approach to the problems in our educational system (i.e., if we just find the right school for Junior, everything will be perfect). Most of the people making this argument, however, are cynics who are attempting to manipulate the education system in this country to their benefit and they could give two halves of a rat’s ass about some poor kid with low test scores in a school with collapsing ceilings, aging textbooks, and teachers with extremely low morale.

To understand the problem with vouchers you have to understand why we have a public education system in this country and in other countries. In the past, a formal education was the exclusive domain of the wealthy and those who could gain the patronage of the upper-class. Because our Western societies are more enlightened, in the last several centuries, we’ve seen the development of compulsory state-sponsored education in many countries, with the express purpose of having a literate citizenry better able to intelligently exercise the right of franchise that has been granted to them. Public school curricula are designed to present history, science, mathematics, writing, and other core subjects in a straightforward and nonpartisan manner. These schools are free to all, regardless of the wealth/social status of one’s parents. Public education exists because one of the key principles of our society is that an educated populace is a well-informed populace and the best kind to make decisions about our present and future goals as a nation.

Vouchers do two important things to undermine these principles: 1) they weaken the public education system by shifting resources to private schools; and 2) they aid in the distortion of educational curricula because charter and private schools do not operate under the same rules as public schools. Vouchers are not an education reform unless you just like using words to mean things they don’t really mean. Shifting resources and students away from “failing” public schools does nothing to address the problems that may exist at those schools. Quite the contrary, it is a way of saying that you are willing to essentially abandon those who remain at those institutions because they weren’t lucky enough to win the lottery–maybe next year. The typical conservative approach to education is to a) promote vouchers and b) promote teacher “reforms.” The problem that many people do not wish to acknowledge is that schools and teachers do not exist in a vacuum. If a child does not get adequate nutrition, does not have time or a quiet place to study when away from school due to extrinsic factors such as having to take care of siblings or working, does not have parents who care and aid him/her in doing the work that succeeding in school requires, that child can have the greatest teachers and administrators and facilities in which to learn for eight hours a day and it won’t make a damn bit of difference. Are there bad or lazy teachers in public schools? Sure, because there are people who are terrible at or indifferent to their jobs everywhere. Does that mean that changes to tenure policies and having more standardized tests will solve our education woes?

Those who have seen The Revisionaries or some of Zach Kopplin’s reporting on where Louisiana was sending some of its voucher money understand the problems that funding private schools with no restraints and little accountability can create. The savvy political operators on the right are pushing vouchers with the precise idea of derailing the system of public education in this country and replacing it with a network of private schools teaching distorted versions of science and history. When a few generations emerge from this “new school order” with their tin foil hats pointed at the sky, the people who shaped that system for this purpose will have achieved their goal of producing an American public willing to go along with whatever notions or candidates are tossed their way. If you think this sounds like a paranoid fantasy, Bill Bennett has already talked about taking over school boards as a means to change curricula; is my dystopian vision of a school system which promotes creationism and the notion that Joe McCarthy was a pretty good guy really that far-off?

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