Wednesday, March 08, 2006

Voucher Hatred

I don't necessarily disagree with everything Jerry wrote, and so I won't waste our time going through point-by-point. Certainly the whole system needs a shake-up, and perhaps the best way to grab public education by the scruff of the neck and shake it is by offering alternatives. However, there are a few pieces Jer did not mention in his reasoned posting. Namely the fact that voucher programs offer nothing more than a lifeboat to the tiny percentage of students for whom vouchers will make the slightest difference.

First some minor bones to pick: With a vast number of private schools being religious in nature, one wonders how voucher advocates can sleep at night knowing they’re draining public tax-dollars for religious schools. They seem to forget the Lemon test, a standard created by the U.S. Supreme Court in 1971. In Lemon v. Kurtzman, government could not, in the justices’ words, “excessively entangle” in religious matters. And yet, in his budget proposal for the fiscal year 2005, President Bush pushed for a $50 million national program for children to -- as the AP puts it -- “attend private and religious schools at federal taxpayers’ expense.” A slight violation of the First Amendment’s establishment of religion clause, methinks.

This proposal from Bush and Education Secretary Rod Paige (who bizarrely labeled the nation’s largest public teacher union a “terrorist group” in 2004) sends an indubitable message that we are giving up on America’s public education efforts. No one denies that vouchers would assist a few kids, and assist them very, very, very well. But the grandeur of America lies in the fact that our national programs are for all people, regardless of ethnic background, academic ability or financial standpoint.

The troubling fact of private schools lies in the nomenclature -- they are “private” and thus allowed to discriminate on any variety of grounds. Private schools often reject applicants for low academic achievement or financial troubles, but that’s not the worst of it. Some of these institutions may promote agendas counter to our national ideal. Under a voucher system, the government may give public funds to subsidize schools run by culturally extremist groups like the Ku Klux Klan or Islamic fundamentalists. Who’s to say that Brown v. Board of Education won’t be thrown out the window as our tax dollars are handed to deliberately segregated high schools?

Advocates argue that vouchers allow poor families to send their children to schools previously available. Alas, the truth suggests otherwise. The average $5,000 voucher would make little difference to most poor students facing some private schools’ tuition of over $10,000 a year. Advocates would fill private schools with middle-class students and a few of the best students from inner cities. Public schools would find themselves with fewer dollars to educate the poorest of the poor and the other students who, for whatever the reason, did not make the private-education cut. This scenario cannot be considered healthy for public education.

To say that vouchers pose a threat to an ethical and Constitutional code intrinsic to American democracy is only part of the argument. When all is said and done, they also make for weak public policy. I'll even note Milwaukee’s $75 million voucher program frequently used as a national model. Even if they've cleaned up most of their mess, as Jerry notes, Mandella Academy for Science and Math officials originally signed up more than 200 students who never enrolled. The principal still cashed $330,000 in state-issued tuition checks and bought himself and his staff Mercedez-Benzes. Also, the founder of another school -- one that received almost $3 million in voucher money over three years -- previously served, unbeknownst to parents, a decade-long term in prison for rape. (Unlike public schools, private school staffs and faculties do not have to undergo criminal background checks.)

Problems in voucher-accepting schools aren’t limited to Wisconsin. In 2000, the Cleveland Plain Dealer disclosed crises forcing at least four local schools to close. The paper verified that the Islamic Academy of Arts and Sciences housed students in an “unsafe building” and had a convicted murderer on its staff. A second school, Golden Christian Academy, had no real problem -- aside from a complete lack of teachers. (Students apparently watched lectures via videotape in a church basement.)

But here’s the truly terrifying part. These schools never have to describe or explain their methods or track pupil performance. There is no accountability, no grading rubric, no way to know if the students are being educated in any real fashion. This is akin to the federal government supplying NASA with millions of dollars and not asking for any status updates -- ever.

As should be expected, a few subtleties evade proponents of vouchers. For the sake of argument, let’s say that taxpayers fully fund tuition to these parochial schools. What about money for necessary books or uniforms? What about transportation for these poverty-stricken children, many of whom are from families without cars? What about the extra-curriculars that countless studies say are so important for young people’s growth?

This is not to mention the fact that private schools aren’t required to offer special education programs for children learning English, speech therapy or learning disabilities. Public schools have to adhere to guidelines that keep in mind all children’s concerns, but private schools are exempt from these codes. The point is this: Any proposal that purports to supply education choice to under-privileged children cannot ignore those things beyond tuition that bar many people from private education.

In conclusion (finally, I know), the response to our broken educational system is not to slap on a few band-aids and hope that does the trick. Siphoning badly needed resources from our public schools while we whistle a happy tune simply amounts to gross negligence.


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