I support vouchers as an essential part of true and effective school choice. Many people reading this, particularly here in Madison, may regard this as akin to supporting public flogging of ten year olds down on the Capitol lawn every Saturday morning. But please read my discussion below before deciding that this position is really so crazy.
Here are some of the most common assertions from voucher opponents, with my responses:
Assertion: Vouchers take money from our public schools by diverting tax money to private schools.
Response: This is the same as saying that receiving a refund from a business for a service not rendered is inappropriate. A voucher also removes a student from the regular public school. Why shouldn’t the money follow the departing student? That money is paid by the parents’ taxes. Why should these parents not have a choice in what kind of service they are paying for?
Assertion: Voucher schools may be selective in who they take in as students, traditional public schools have to take in everyone.
Response: The difference of value between a current voucher and the cost of a public school education is not even close. In Madison, the cost to educate an average student in a public school is nearly $20,000. Of course, the actual cost will be more for some kids with special needs, less for others. The current value of a voucher in Madison is $8,000 for K-8 and $8,500 for high school. Except in very limited cases, this is regardless of special needs services which the voucher student may need from the chosen private school.
Thus, the regular public school requires that an accepting voucher school use its own often extremely limited resources to make up for this difference. The public school, meanwhile, pockets over $11,000 each year to spend on its own programs and staff.
Then, to top it off, voucher opponents beat up on the private schools for failing to be realistically able to “serve all needs!” From this argument, then comes the demand to end to all state-financed vouchers as soon as possible.
Obviously, school choice should be all about providing services to children with special needs. I believe it’s also obvious that a school with more independence and imagination can do this much better than a bureaucratic institution being run from top down. But they need the actual resources to do this. It is flatly dishonest and disingenuous to make the assertion that current dollar levels of vouchers allow this to be possible in the real world.
Assertion: Tax dollars should NOT be funneled to private for-profit schools!
Response: Find me a for-profit voucher school, which is not located in the midst of a hopelessly bad public school system, or is not destined for a very short life, and I will eat it brick-by-brick.
Assertion: There is one voucher school in Madison, with three more which have been announced. My taxes should NOT be funneled to finance religious schools!
Response: Your taxes? How did the importance of your taxes supersede the importance of the taxes from other parents who chose to send their child to a religious school? How did your own beliefs become more important than the beliefs of other taxpayers? Are the parents of children who are sending their children to a religious school not paying taxes as well as you? Are their taxes not currently going to public schools which have their own agendas, beginning with Identity Politics? Don’t parents, who pay the same taxes as you, have a right to demand that their own taxes go more towards supporting their own beliefs and principles over yours? Private religious schools are not demanding that your child attend their schools. Yet you are demanding this of their own child. How is this at all reasonable?
Assertion: Parents who support vouchers means that they are unhappy with their normal public school. Support for vouchers is thus an existential threat to “public education.”
Response: This does not make sense, any more than advocating the right of someone to eat at a vegetarian restaurant means that one wouldn't rather personally choose to eat at her own neighborhood BBQ joint. Personally, for example, I am happy to see my step-son continue attending Memorial High at this stage in his life, regardless of whether much better alternatives for some of his classmates are created. Vouchers, charters or normal public schools; it should be about real and meaningful choice for what parents deem is best for their own child during a certain period in her life.
Assertion: Vouchers do not offer accountability to the public that these schools are really
doing a good job.
Response: Good job according to whom? The accountability of a private voucher school is based on a progress report to parents which comes home, as a moving, breathing individual kid, with a beating heart, every single day of the school year. And if the accountability is not there, the parent has the ability to to reject this school in the favor of a better option, within the space of one semester. Contrast that with the “accountability” of the impenetrable bureaucracy of MMSD, which protects its own, regardless of the impact upon either children or taxpayers. What happened at Sherman Middle School, with the full support of both our Superintendent and the MMSD board, really says it all, doesn’t it? Where was the accountability there? And where was the ability of Sherman Middle School students to flee from this intentionally broken school?
Assertion: Vouchers encourage the Balkanization of our society, whereas a public school offers an environment in which all children learn to value and respect others.
Response: If only the latter were true! In fact, our public schools here in Madison are notorious for shutting down unpopular speech and alternative viewpoints. This, of course, is not to say that a private voucher school might not also do the same. I don’t think that either of these is desirable. But from my experience in dealing with children, I also think it is largely a myth that
heavy-handed attempts at indoctrination by any school are successful in the long term. In fact,
it often leads to the opposite, once adolescence kicks in. And once that questioning starts, there is no going back.
Moreover, there are very few people in Madison, either parents or childless taxpayers, whom are active proponents of the Balkanization of our society, beginning with our schools. Quite the contrary. In fact, I think that much of our increasing drift toward separation and division can be precisely traced back to predictable repercussions from those values being encouraged in our regular MMSD public schools. Identity politics is Exhibit #1 in this regard.
Assertion: A belief in public education means that vouchers are just wrong. Vouchers mean we are “privatizing” education, and this is bad on the face of it.
Response: The cost of our public schools is about $620 billion per year. Our military is spending $886 billion for this fiscal year. Our military is also a public institution, and it has always channeled taxpayer money through private industry in order to build its ships, planes, tanks, etc. These subsidiaries are for-profit companies, unlike nearly every current voucher school in this country. Competitive bids are taken by the government from private industries like Lockheed, GM, Boeing, Colt, etc. Once, in, the bids are reviewed and contracts are made. Yes, this system is rife with massive corruption and waste, but would anyone suggest that a better and more efficient and effective system would be for our government to establish its own state-controlled factories to build its armaments? Our current system of subcontracting to private industry is the reason our military is the best in the world. It isn’t because the state has taken on this role of personally manufacturing its weapons.
So how is this any different from taxpayers providing vouchers for education? In fact, ignoring the for-profit distinction, the parallels do not do justice to the reality. Our military is producing hardware which must be standardized in order for its effective use in a time of war. Our schools, on the other hand, should be producing an education which takes into account the wildly different needs of wildly different children throughout our country. A commitment to democracy in our country, at its most fundamental level, means a system of education which understands how empowering each child will ultimately result in a society which values and embraces a healthy mix of competent, courageous, creative, moral leaders in the future. A state-controlled system of conformity, such as voucher opponents advocate -despite all their rhetoric - advocates the opposite.
In addition to the above, there are other financial and social benefits of voucher schools. Almost never addressed in this debate are the immense long-term benefits for our society with school choice. It takes no major long-term study or even much imagination to understand why this would be true. Children who are happy in their learning environment do not shoot up schools and kill their classmates. Children who are happy in their learning environment do not become adult drug addicts after first being weaned on drugs at a young age by the public school which controls them so much of their waking hours for 12 years. They do not become angry and embittered people who make life hell for themselves and other people in their life. They do not end up draining resources and causing crushing heartache within their families who are desperately trying to find them help. They do not end up in the school-to-prison pipeline which costs taxpayers in WI an additional $30,000 a year to house these trapped children in steel cages for decades.
It is for all the above reasons that I support vouchers as the best solution to truly reforming and
improving the MMSD schools. Unlike trying to build better ships and planes, we already have a strong infrastructure of knowledge and insight regarding alternative forms of education out there. Unfortunately much of this has flown past the “experts” unnoticed. We just need to equitably fund it, and then let it blossom, always under the watchful eye of engaged professional journalists and parental personal comparisons.
A fundamental part for the success of all this, however, is that private voucher schools must NOT be hamstrung by the rules and regulations which the state uses in its attempt to dumb down and control our future citizens and leaders. This is precisely what advocates of state-controlled education always call for, in their desire to shut down truly competitive educational alternatives. Voucher proponents should beware of this calculated strategy at all times, which is the unfortunate Achilles heel of all charter school proposals.