The Lafayette Journal & Courier featured a column by an administrator at one of the local Christian schools entitled “Why School Choice is Working.” Despite the title, the column doesn’t really establish that “school choice” (i.e. vouchers/privatization, etc.) is “working.” For starters, it doesn’t really define what “working” is. (My assumption is that this should mean that we end up with a better educated population. But, for all I know, someone else might think it enough that we’re handing kids diplomas without spending as much money.)
But, on to the arguments.
Item the first: The columnist argues that vouchers are actually saving our educational system money because a “voucher will always cost less than public school tuition because it cannot exceed 90 percent of the cost of attending a public school.” I’ll just re-state my response from the last time this argument surfaced in the paper:
First of all, not all children cost the same to educate. As I’ve mentioned before, that’s a major issue with taking a “dollars-follow-the-child” approach. Some kids are easier to educate than others. My guess is that the tougher cases are more likely to stay in public schools. Secondly, this ignores the subsidy potential for parents who, in the absence of the “choice” legislation would have paid 100% of their decision to put their kid in a non-public school. This is a windfall for those families. No one is forcing you to give your kids a public, secular education, but now we’re subsidizing the decision to send kids to private and/or religious schools.
Item the second: The local schools’ test scores are improving and the administrator’s particular school have remained the same. This “does no harm” argument is not compelling. First of all, this particular argument is anecdotal. I have no idea whether it is representative of the state as a whole. But, even if it was, maintaining the status quo in terms of educational quality is hardly a compelling case for publicly funding private education.
Boiled down, those are the two arguments the column puts forward. So, the headline (which may not be the author’s doing) is not really on point. He also asserts that publicly funding a religious education is constitutional because it’s the parent’s choice. I don’t think one follows from the other, but won’t quarrel with him at this point because, where these vouchers are concerned, the religious angle really isn’t at the heart of my beef. I don’t really like it any better when the vouchers are going to private, secular schools.
Lacking any evidence that these voucher experiments are actually improving education, proponents of school privatization are left with bare assertions that “empowering” parents to “choose” is, by itself, a sufficient reason to publicly fund private education. Being empowered and choosing are good things, right? I’m sure their marketing consultants tell them that. But, as I’ve said before, these are not sufficient reasons for insisting on unproven schemes for improving our schools. Other countries have figured a lot of this out. We don’t have to reinvent the wheel. We can look at what has worked elsewhere and copy it.
Near as I can tell, the voucher proponents fall into one of three general camps:
1. People who were going to send their kids to something other than a traditional public school anyway and want to have that decision subsidized.
2. People who see that big pot of education money as a business opportunity.
3. People who regard “free market” arguments as a sort of dogma and believe that making the school system more like a marketplace must improve education, regardless of the actual data.
And, I suppose honorable mention should go to lawmakers and politicians who see this as a way to disempower public school teachers as a political force. But that is, perhaps, a discussion for another day.