The Common Good
January-February 1998

School Vouchers: Empty Promises

by Nanette M. Roberts | January-February 1998

The wrong answer to the right question.

In a sense, the whole "voucher-school choice" business is a bogus issue. When we consider that there are almost 50 million children in our public schools, touting vouchers as a solution to our educational problems is an empty show.

Only a small percentage of those millions of students could find good non-public schools with openings available. And since more than 75 percent of non-public schools are parochial, and very few communities offer a variety of private or parochial schools, most parents would find that their only "choice" would be a school that inculcated a religious faith not their own. For many, that would be no choice at all.

Of course, private and parochial schools might very well spring up overnight in response to the sudden availability of government money. But granted the shortage of qualified people to teach at the salaries available to teachers, the quality of those new schools would immediately be open to question. Many of them might well become cruel disappointments to those who looked to them for the educational salvation of their children.

Why, then, are voucher proponents so determined to make vouchers the centerpiece of their educational proposals? Would vouchers really provide quality education and school reform for America’s children? In particular, would vouchers improve the quality of education for children of families that are poor? The answer to the last two questions, I believe, is a resounding "no!"

Proponents claim that vouchers would improve all public schools through competition, and would allow poverty families the same "choice" of schools that wealthier families have. Both claims are fraudulent, and for the same reason: If competition really works (in itself a dubious assertion), it is only real when it is between equals. And private-parochial schools and public schools are not equal. Parochial and private schools can and do choose the children they admit and retain. They are free to send children who do not measure up intellectually, behaviorally, or emotionally back to the public schools; and they do.

By contrast, public schools accept and retain virtually all who are admitted. Consequently, it is the parochial and private schools that do the choosing, not the parents. How many elite non-public schools would choose to fill openings with children from poverty backgrounds? How many parochial or private schools would choose children with behavioral or academic problems? And how many parents of students in elite schools would keep their children there if the schools admitted from the public-school pool all who came to their doors with vouchers in hand?

WE NEED TO BE HONEST about these issues. Parents select private or parochial schools on the basis of the class, gender, racial, ethnic, and/or religious make-up of the school population or the teaching staff. Conversely, many parents who select public schools do so because they want the racial, religious, ethnic, class, physical ability, and gender mix that public schools offer.

The diversity found in the public schools is guaranteed by their inclusiveness in admissions, an inclusiveness which complies with federal non-discrimination laws in schools supported by taxes. Using tax money to support schools not governed by those laws raises serious constitutional issues; indeed, voucher proposals have been struck down by courts all over the United States, with only two exceptions, Milwaukee and Cleveland. In both cities, their voucher programs are under legal challenge.

Some have argued for vouchers by comparing them with the G.I. Bill, used by many students at church-affiliated schools. But the G.I. Bill, unlike vouchers, was to some extent reimbursement for services performed. In addition, most church-affiliated colleges, to be eligible for federal funding for other programs, restrict religious teaching to theology or sociology departments, where the teaching is subject to the customary rules of academic inquiry.

By contrast, parochial schools have a pervasively sectarian atmosphere; indeed, it is for that reason that parents seek them out! Governmental oversight, which would inevitably and rightly follow upon governmental funding,

would damage the character of parochial schools, a result that few—including this writer—would welcome. Parochial and private schools have a legitimate role to play in America’s educational mix; but those who select them must at the same time recognize their obligation as members of a community to support the schools the community provides for the education of all. That means using tax money for public schools and private money for private schools.

There is no denying that vouchers would give a degree of financial relief to families with children in private and parochial schools—a significant degree to most parochial school parents, a minor but undoubtedly welcome $1,000 to $2,000 subsidy to parents of private school students. Voucher proponents—many of whom are in the forefront of anti-tax and anti-government thinking—ought to admit that part of their purpose is to give financial relief to their political and ideological base. How ironic that many voucher proponents decry federal funding, but would "solve" this problem by another federal handout! True educational reform requires very different remedies.

MAKE NO MISTAKE: Many of America’s public schools need help, and they need it massively, especially in the inner-city and rural areas where children of poverty—disproportionately children of color—constitute the majority. But misleading proposals will not provide that help; nor will taking money away from public schools for vouchers improve our schools. Our public schools need immediate attention to the condition of their physical plants, the training of their teachers (many of whom teach in areas in which they have no special expertise), the size of their classes and the equipment and supplies they need, and the quality of their hopes for the children entrusted to them. They need the money and support that vouchers would bleed away.

For good and for ill, public schools reflect the society and the neighborhoods that create them. Clearly, many in our society care very little about the children of the poor. It would be refreshing if they would simply say so, instead of filling the air with words like "choice," "competition," and "reform." What they propose would clearly lead to the virtual abandonment and slow financial starvation of the public schools, not to their improvement.

The National PTA has offered some important questions to ask about any proposed "voucher" program. These questions include: Will there be transportation for children not driven by a parent? Will there be equal access for all voucher recipients? Are there procedures for parents who find school policies discriminatory? Will voucher schools be required to adhere to the same policies on access, accountability, safety, and curriculum that govern the public schools? Will the school use public money to promote religion? Whose? What provision will there be for those not admitted because the school is oversubscribed? Are students and employees guaranteed equal access, non-discrimination, desegregation, and due process? Can students move and retain the voucher? What will it be worth if the student moves? Who will oversee financing or student mobility? Who will audit school records and certify the voucher school and its staff?

To this list we need to add: What happens to the children left behind in the public schools, schools now deprived of a significant amount of funding, of some of their diverse population, and of the support of parents who clearly care about education?

Schooling is a complex issue, involving the mind, the heart, the soul, and the pocketbook. Most important, it involves the communal ethos of the society. The system we have needs repair in far too many schools because our commitment to community has been eroded. But to lose that system—to fragment it further by using public money to promote the racial, class, ethnic, and religious fault lines of our society—would make for social chaos. Even worse, it would make emotional and educational chaos in the lives of children—especially poor children—who deserve far better at our hands.

NANETTE M. ROBERTS is consultant in public education for the National Council of the Churches of Christ in New York City.

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