Tuesday, March 13, 2012

School vouchers: Just how terrible are they?

For the longest time, I opposed school vouchers. The reason I disliked them was because I felt tax money shouldn’t go to private schools, especially parochial ones. But in recent months, after giving careful consideration to Gov. Bobby Jindal’s education reform plan — of which vouchers are a primary component — I’ve had a change of heart. Now I hate vouchers for so many more reasons.

School vouchers, in a nutshell, take a share of tax money dedicated to a particular public school and put it in parents’ hands for them to direct toward their school of choice. This theoretically allows children in bad schools to transfer to better ones, including private schools. In fact, proponents call it “school choice,” which makes the whole thing sound so sparkly.

However, I find the idea hard to stomach, largely due to the support it has from conservatives — the wing that openly disdains all things public, and includes many who wouldn’t shed a tear if the school system was dismantled altogether. It takes a slick person to sell vouchers as a solution to our education woes, and Jindal, with his passionate hostility toward teachers’ unions, knows his disaffected audience.

But not all of us buy into the notion that our only two options are to let schools continue to crumble, or adopt Jindal’s plan without hesitation. The governor’s education plan is like most of his plans: austere, punitive and cynical — words I learned in Louisiana public schools, and would like other students to learn as well.

So here’s what’s wrong with vouchers:

• Vouchers are a cure without a disease.

Our education system has enough problems without making up more. The idea behind vouchers is that public schools are failing due to educator apathy, and that free-market competition will light a sufficient fire under their asses to shape up. This cracked idea would fly only in our age, sold as we are on the image of an unmotivated government employee living high on the hog. Does anybody honestly associate that image with a public school teacher? Just being one requires an insane fortitude and a virtual vow of poverty — to say nothing of the incredibly touchy line they have to straddle with parents, administrators and the general public. They say mentoring young minds is its own reward, and we’ve sadly made sure that’s true.

Teachers are overworked, underpaid and underappreciated; voucher types pretend the exact opposite is true. They view public education as if it’s a failing business, specifically Enron. So not only is it flailing in the water, we’re all too happy to throw it an anchor.

America’s obsession with profit motives overlooks the fact that that not everything is meant to be a business, and that some institutions suffer when reduced to a mere spreadsheet. We seem to think public schools should duke it out for our support like they’re stores in a mall — or perhaps the Thunderdome. But really:

• Public schools should be like McDonald’s.

Not in the sense that they offer questionably nutritious fare and the seats are hard — I mean in terms of what they offer. Walk into any McDonald’s anywhere in the United States, and the hamburger you get will look, feel and taste exactly the same as its counterpart 49 states away. And while franchises are everywhere, they don’t compete against each other, because they’re all connected. Likewise, the purpose of public schools is to educate every American, no matter who they are or where they live. Quality public schools should be as ubiquitous as the Golden Arches, and just as surprising to see. Which is to say, not at all.

But voucher advocates want schools to be less like McDonald’s and more like AT&T and Verizon — at each other’s throats. Or, to use an older comparison, Coke and Pepsi at the height of the cola wars. Though maybe it’s more appropriate to say Coke and Faygo, because that’s the imbalance we’d be dealing with. Awarding schools for excellence is fine, but it should be done with an understanding of why schools succeed and fail, and a desire to elevate all schools. Unfortunately:

• Vouchers concede that some schools should just rot.

I once heard someone say, “Why should we care about tap water? I buy bottles.” Vouchers cater to that same self-centeredness: “My son is going to a better school than that hovel.” Sure, all parents want what’s best for their child. But what about that hovel? Will it go away once it’s been stripped of its funding and gutted of its most potentially positive influences? No, it won’t. But it could become a concentrated, crumbling haven for problem students and dispirited educators. And that’s forgotten when apologists argue that voucher programs work: for every success story, there’s someone who didn’t benefit. And if it’s true that vouchers are meant to help everyone, then every student we shortchange is more proof that the solution is a bad one.

• If the state must treat schools as businesses, it should at least try to sell them.

Public education is a civic imperative. It lives and dies by what we put into it in terms of money, support and dedication. Vouchers say, “Eh, screw that. Let’s go Galt.” Not only does it take tax money out of the system, it would also remove many bright students. If parents elect to send their children to private schools, fine. But the state should at least attempt to fix and sell its assets, rather than dare parents to avoid them. Jindal should be thinking of ways to get schools off the hospital bed, instead of announcing that he’s pulled the plug from the get-go.

In New Orleans and Baton Rouge, it’s largely understood that you don’t enroll in public schools if you can help it. Jindal’s plan doesn’t aspire to change that, which is unfortunate for students not in “choice” private schools. And that won’t help anyone, because:

• Choice schools will become un-choice very fast.

Private schools are not magical places buoyed by morals; they benefit from the ability to select their students and enjoy lower student-teacher ratios. If public schools weren’t obligated to teach every child, they’d see similar results. Conversely, if private schools suddenly saw an influx of voucher students, academic prestige would likely take a hit.

• That is, assuming the private schools would even take them in.

Lacking as they do accountability, private schools have no mandate to accept anyone. Vouchers put children’s futures in the hands of institutions that may not want them. Where does that leave the rejected students? Right back in the system that failed them and that we didn’t fix. And that has much less money to work with than before. But that’s their problem, right? If they weren’t enterprising enough, the blame lies with them.

• Vouchers create a distinct class of “them.”

And we know who “they” are. “They” are the reason a lot of people abandon the public school system in the first place. And many who have begrudgingly stuck with the system support vouchers to afford to get away from “them.” Because “they” are the ones who make trouble, and no system that enrolls “them” could possibly be worth improving.

Vouchers promote de facto segregation, is what I’m saying. Whether it’s along racial, academic, cultural, religious or economic lines, some parents want the ability to close off contact with entire demographics. And that violates the spirit of education, as well as society in general. As the world shrinks, our minds must expand. Our children will learn that one way or another.

Let’s let them hear it from us.

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