Tuesday, March 07, 2006

Voucher Ambivalence

John Tierney makes some interesting arguments for private school vouchers in today's New York Times. I have many qualms with such ideas, but I'll concede a few of his points.

He highlights the successes (though only proven anecdotally) of a 15-year-old voucher program in Milwaukee that has its local paper, which editorialized against the program at the scheme's inception, speaking favorably about it. Tens of new private schools, at least some of which offer smaller, more intimate environments than the public schools to which their students would have gone before the program, have started and the public schools, faced with competitive pressures, have also improved, according to the column.

This is a tough idea for a public school teacher to get behind, but anyone who disagrees that smaller, more intimate schools that offer experienced teachers and high expectations is getting lost in the politics of this issue. Anyone who would rally against an inner-city parent who jumps at the opportunity to get his or her child out of a failing (and, often, dangerous) neighborhood school is simply laughable. That's what turned Sen. Dianne Feinstein on the Washington, D.C. voucher program three years ago.

Many inner-city public schools need to be shuddered, and the system badly needs an injection of competition (you wouldn't believe the complacency and bitter politicking that creeps into schools). Vouchers offer an immediate way to start that job (as do a far better solution, in my opinion -- charter schools, some of which are doing pretty great things), and policy makers of all stripes from both sides of the aisle need to take the idea seriously.

But a few notes of caution. Vouchers cannot, and will not, be an end-all be-all easy fix. It is simply impossible to have every school be as small as one Tierney mentions as a success -- 125 students (think of how many schools, and qualified administrators and teachers, you'd need in New York alone, with its 1.1 million students). And, as private markets prove again and again in areas like health care (45 million uninsured), left alone, they leave the needy behind.

Public education is nowhere near perfect, and anyone who says the opposite is kidding him or herself. But with a groundswell of urgency from the public -- with a fervent will to change things from millions of people across the country (enough desire to change the system that we have parents, students and interested citizens passionately rallying and pressuring policymakers), we can make changes.

The problems are overwhelming and we're talking about millions of real people who are left behind because of our public schools' failures every year, so we need to start thinking hard today. We need to open ourselves up to innovative ideas, and if vouchers are part of the solution (I'll reiterate part -- Republicans are, again, fooling themselves if they think they're the solution to public education's failures), then so be it.


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