Feet on the ground – head in the clouds.

What’s wrong with school vouchers? (UPDATED)

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School vouchers, also known as scholarships, redirect the flow of education funding, channeling it directly to individual families rather than to school districts. This allows families to select the public or private schools of their choice and have all or part of the tuition paid.

Schoolchoices.org does a good job explaining what the aims of the voucher system are: redirecting funds to families, families then can make the choice about what school to attend. Makes perfect sense.

So what’s the big deal? I don’t see a problem with that goal.  Well, proponents of the voucher system ignore three key issues that turn this plan into swiss cheese.

Vouchers would put public funds into religious institutions.

Vouchers are the funds that would be going to school districts based on enrollment. Through this system, the money goes to families to decide where to send their children. If you consider the schools that would be the alternatives, you are looking at other public schools within the same or nearby districts or private schools. Many private schools also hold religious affiliation. At this point it’s very clear that vouchers would funnel tax dollars to private religious schools. This wouldn’t be the norm, but it would happen.

I love the guidance and positive works of religion in our culture, but America is great because we separate church and state. In many parts of the world, not being a believer is extremely dangerous. In America, people are free to use their expression and speech to denounce your wicked soul and move on with their lives. Furthermore it is these schools that struggle least for funding or performance. Are we trying to help education, or get a tax break for religious school.

Vouchers reward those who can or can almost afford private schools now, leaving anyone with little means at underfunded public schools.

Probably the most empirical arguments against vouchers are based on economics and de facto socio-economic segregation. First let me say, I’m not accusing anyone of anything. I’m stating de factos and not concerning myself with assessing blame. Check out a sample from a Phoenix-area Catholic college preparatory high school tuition schedule for new students next fall.

You do the science. It’s hard to assume the $3,600-$4,000 states give the school districts per student would actually give students a true opportunity to attend these college prep schools. It would give those already able to afford tuition a nice break on their bill, and even give a few more of those on the bubble an opportunity. The state of the economy and the quality of all schools, not just those where property taxes yield a lot of revenue.

The laptop requirement is also nice, and honestly the best tool for education. I just can’t deny it wouldn’t last long in some of the neighborhoods where we actually need to fix education. It’s those most disadvantaged currently who would be marginalized under a voucher system. Anyone who has seen Lean on Me or heard Like a Rolling Stone knows those with nothing, risk nothing when they take to a life of crime. I’m in no way justifying it, but if you want to solve the problem you have to look at the facts. All of them

Vouchers weaken our current public school system while only offering the illusion of positive effects.

This brings me to my third argument, we’re ignoring the real issue. In America, the capitalist capital of the world. The land of opportunity, and competition. What do we do with our education system? Well, there is no real competition. Administrators and bureaucrats say schools compete with each other to have a higher graduation rate or percentage of students passing standardized tests. If you’ve worked in retail with some “fast, fun and friendly” managers, you know that the enthusiasm of the boss doesn’t always motivate the worker.

In my case it was counter-productive. Want me to attach warranties to calculators that will be lost before broken? No thanks. Criticize my “sales technique” when I don’t try and up sell an elderly lady on a computer she would use to write an email or two a week. I literally walked away from this sale proud of myself as a human being. I had found the right shoe for the foot. An absolute perfect fit. She was happy and trusted me for leaving her with my name and hours so she could call with questions. After all of this, I got a lecture on my sales technique.

Business leadership is constantly merging with leadership in education. It would be a good thing if education weren’t an outright monopoly. There are private schools, yes, but by law every child in the state of Arizona is required to attend school until age 16 and most (if not all) other states have similar requirements, even if the age is different. What we would create with a voucher system is an even more segregated system, along socio-economic lines.

Children in the inner-cities don’t pass up private school because they lack half of the tuition necessary, they pass it up because there’s no way they could afford it if all but $1,000 were paid by financial aid. They pass it up because they use public transportation and couldn’t get to an across town private school on-time every morning. They pass it up because, in many cases, they have never learned the value of education from their own parents. The same parents who would be staring at a voucher thinking it’s just another annoyance, like parent-teacher conferences. [I saw maybe 10-20 parents for every 120-150 students.]

Back to competition. We’re not even trying to compete, the bosses think we are, but the workers don’t take it seriously. To fix the situation and not just mask the problem with a band aid, one that will actually make the situation much worse, we must look at the problem in a whole sense and account for the challenges that will directly arise as a result of any corrective policy action. In a perfect world, this does mean even less influence from the federal government. The word ‘education’ does not grace the pages of the Constitution, and by the 10th Amendment, it becomes a state’s issue.

States can be more competitive than districts and administrators. States actually hold a more real sense of pride than simply aligning with those who live near you. Unless you have a homogeneous community, true pride in the school and district are nearly non-existent. Compare any high school rivalry with a college rivalry and they may appear similar at first, but under the surface, everyone between those schools competes. The researchers and professors work to publish and bring positive attention to the university. They collaborate and compete between schools. There’s hardly any true competition like this at a high school level, and it’s a shame.

Stop Department of Education redundancy, by eliminating the federal Department of Education and let states at the departmental level compete. Stop having one idea direct all of our kids, because when plans like that fail (as we see now) they all suffer. The voucher system is simply a local band-aid on a problem originating at the federal level. States should control their own education systems, they already fund the bulk of education budgets. Vouchers simply move funds around, when school funding is already lopsided (drastically, even within a district).

Students already have a choice, it’s called open-enrollment. It requires no new bureaucracy, no new paperwork. Transfer within district is already possible. We don’t have to change a thing about school choice to have school choice, and we maintain a fair separation of church and state. There is much more to do in regards to education, but the voucher system is definitely a distraction and not a solution.

UPDATE (09/03/08): According to Glassbooth.org, Barack Obama is against the voucher system (according to the quote), although it also states he is neutral on the voucher system. Here is a link to all of Senator Obama’s education-related positions.  Like Senator Obama, I also believe that until classroom resources and learning environments are standardized, tests should not be.

Senator McCain strongly supports the voucher system. Another major point of disagreement between the two on education are on renewing the No Child Left Behind Act (Obama opposes, McCain supports) which has obviously led to no American child being behind the curve of global competition, right? They also completely disagree on the value of standardized tests, something I like as a resource but hate as a requirement.  That is without considering the (would be) book-banning Mayor, now Senator McCain’s VP pick.


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