School Vouchers

School Vouchers: Empty Promises

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!"

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Sojourners Magazine January-February 1998
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School Vouchers: Expanded Choices

Nothing could be more futile than to debate—as so many do—about whether an abstraction called "school choice" is a good or a bad thing. Choice is massively present in American education, and those who exercise it would not willingly give it up. But like many of the goods we value, it is unevenly distributed in a way that reflects the income, influence, and sophistication of different groups in society.

For that reason, it should be no surprise that the support for school choice, as reflected in many opinion surveys, is strongest among those who have the least opportunity to exercise it, and for whom the stakes are highest. Again and again, the strongest support for parent choice of schools, including private schools with a religious identity, was among urban and minority respondents with school-aged children.

Those who oppose public policies that would allow poor parents to choose what schools their children will attend, claiming that this would undermine the common public school and thus divide American society, do not apply that argument consistently. After all, if the unity of our society requires that children from different backgrounds attend school together, why should we allow the affluent to enroll their children in private schools or escape to the suburbs? Why not forbid private schools and mandate metropolitan school desegregation?

We have not heard such proposals from the defenders of the public school monopoly, nor are we likely to. After all, big-city public schoolteachers are twice as likely as the general public to put their own children in private schools, and have strongly resisted residency laws requiring them to live within the school districts that employ them. Few, if any, of their allies in Congress send their own children to the District of Columbia public schools.

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Sojourners Magazine January-February 1998
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