School Vouchers:

Good Sound Clips, Bad Idea

The school voucher plan sounds like a plan with which it would be difficult to disagree. Framed as a program that would give students of failing public schools "school choice," vouchers would be used to allow these students to attend private or alternate schools.

And who among us doesn't think that sounds good? Who doesn't want to shout, "Yes! Give these students school choice!" I do. But the school voucher program will not provide this choice, and it will do more harm than good.

Why are school vouchers such a bad idea?

I have a niece. She's five, and in Kindergarten at a public elementary school.

Let's pretend that the school she attends is failing to produce students who can read, master mathematics, or think critically. Let's pretend the voucher plan is going to be implemented.

Well, our first step in this matter of vital importance is to ... wait. We keep doing what we're doing and see if the school shapes up in three years.

It doesn't. So we assume the school personnel aren't trying hard enough. This is my first big problem with school vouchers.

Ask any proponent of the voucher plan how the program can possibly benefit public schools, and they will tell you that the competition will force the public school to get its act together. As if declining test scores, a high drop-out rate, and a room full of students who cannot read at the proper level are things the school personnel do not notice or care about. As if they aren't already trying as hard as they can.

I am of the opinion that if a public school is failing, it is doing so because it lacks some key to success. The job of the community, the government, the principal, the student teacher, the students themselves is to search for that key, to find it, to implement it, to support it.

That key is not money. Proponents of the voucher plan are correct when they say, "throwing money at a problem won't fix it." But you know what? Money buys things like new teachers and textbooks and special education supplies and computers and social studies fairs and extra rooms and smaller class sizes. Isn't it possible that that vital key is contained somewhere in all that?

But, okay. Back to my niece, Marilyn. Let's pretend Marilyn is in second grade, and her school still fails to live up to standard. In swoops the government and allows Marilyn to be whisked away to a perfect private school where there are no troubles, right?

Wrong. My sister Jennifer, being a single working student mom, can't afford to meet the voucher half-way. Vouchers will not pay every poor child's way through private school, K - 12, plus uniforms that may be required, textbooks that have to be purchased, and transportation to city private schools from far-flung communities. So now, while a couple of working-class kids are whisked away to a private school which may or may not be better than the public one, really poor kids like my gal Mari are left in their inferior second-grade classroom.

So. Let's pretend some rich billionaire with a good heart steps up and advances the money for Marilyn's private school education. Mari's mom starts looking for a private school -- except the only school in the area is a parochial school, so kids who come from families who aren't Christian are still stuck back there in the inferior public school, which is losing aid because the government's money is paying for working-class Christian kids to go to private school.

But let's say Jennifer, although she does not believe in the creed of the parochial school, enrolls Marilyn anyway because she's told the academics are better there. (If you knew my sister, you would be falling out of your chair. Jenn? Enroll Mari in a parochial school? Snort! But let's just pretend that she does.) So everyone's happy, right?

Except that Marilyn's public school, struggling with a mass of students with varying needs and unable to work one-on-one with my niece, who is a very unique learner and has trouble concentrating in a large group setting, didn't teach her to read or do math very well. Mari, a special education student, is in a school which is suffering from the federal government's reluctance to fund IDEA. So the private school, which has its own set of admissions standards and is neither willing nor required to accept the public system's standards, will not accept her. So Mari is stuck in the inferior public school.

But let's pretend that didn't happen. Let's pretend Jennifer tutored Mari all during Kindergarten and first grade, and Marilyn can read and spell and do math and she's just a little wizard at everything. Marilyn is now a second grader at Generic Heavenly Private School. So all are happy, right?

Wrong, because suddenly we learn that at the private school where Mari goes, her teachers are not required to be certified. There are a few of them who don't even have bachelor's degrees, and they're now the ones teaching Marilyn her math and reading.

But let's say the federal government, by some miracle, convinces all private schools who accept vouchers to require their teachers to be certified. What's happening with Marilyn's curriculum?

Well, since the only private school in her area is a parochial school, the first goal of her curriculum is quite possibly "religious development." [For the record, from the American Federation of Teachers: "59% of Conservative Christian and 55% of Catholic school principals say religious development is their top goal, followed by literacy (15.4% and 10.9% respectively) and excellence (13.1% and 13.7% respectively)." ] So instead of learning literacy above all else, Marilyn and her many varied classmates are learning above all else about a religion with which they may or may not agree.

But let's say that's not a problem. Let's say, due to the need for private schools, another one is built, pulling qualified teachers and potential teachers from the public schools and leaving those schools with an even greater teacher shortage. By some miracle, there are enough kids in Mari's district being sponsored by generous millionaires that a new private school is able to open up. Marilyn's new school is a secular school, and literacy and excellence are its top goals.

Unfortunately, now the government is in an argument with the private school about what it must do to be allowed to accept government funds. The school is unwilling to lower its admissions standards or accomodate special needs kids (including physically handicapped children, visually impaired children, deaf and hard of hearing children, children with ADD or ADHD, kids with learning disabilities, kids with autism, kids with CP, kids who are mildly, moderately, or severely mentally retarded ... so many public school children). And Mari, being a unique learner who is at times very difficult to work with and to understand, is, once again, left behind.

So academically average, Christian, working-class children in urban or suburban areas have school choice. Which is fine. Great. Perfect, unless it happens at the expense of the other kids. And in this case, it does.


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