Thursday, April 06, 2006

Some Thoughts on Vouchers and School Choice

There's an article in today's NYT about the voucher program in Washington, D.C. and many of the minority students the program is benefitting.

"Last year, parents appeared lukewarm toward the program, which was put in place by Congressional Republicans as a five-year pilot program, But this year, it is attracting more participation, illustrating how school-choice programs are winning over minority parents, traditionally a Democratic constituency.

Washington's African-American mayor, Anthony A. Williams, joined Republicans in supporting the program, prompted in part by a concession from Congress that pumped more money into public and charter schools. In doing so, Mr. Williams ignored the ire of fellow Democrats, labor unions and advocates of public schools.

"As mayor, if I can't get the city together, people move out," said Mr. Williams, who attended Catholic schools as a child. "If I can't get the schools together, why should there be a barrier programmatically to people exercising their choice and moving their children out?"

School-choice programs have fervent opponents, and here, public school officials worry that the voucher program will diminish the importance of the neighborhood school, though the program serves only a relative few of the district's 58,000 students. National critics of school choice like Reg Weaver, president of the country's largest teachers' union, the National Education Association, accused voucher supporters of "exploiting the frustration of these minority parents to push for a political agenda" intended to undermine public schools."

Common rhetoric from the opponents of school choice/vouchers goes like this (I've put my response in italics to be clear.): "If vouchers and "school choice" are allowed in the USA, it will spell the end of public education. The rich and the privileged will be placed into the "good" schools, parents will have MORE pressure to make more money finacially, (assuming the vouchers will not cover the complete tuition to the most expensive schools) the best teachers will be funneled into the few schools which pay the most, and the poor and those who need more help learning will be left in poor schools with virtually NO money for what they need. Vouchers are reactionary and elitist and will not be a benefit to anyone whose family makes less than middle 6 figure income, AND will be the end of any decent public education."

But we already have school choice, in the form of open enrollment, and none of these dire predictions has come to pass. My state's virtual schools are free, include computer and modem and a stipend to pay for internet access, and offer, at the high school level, a plethora of AP classes so students can accumulate college credit for free. They are open to anyone who signs up in February. This seems neither reactionary *nor* elitist, nor does it only benefit kids whose parents make more than a middle 6 figure income. The New York Times article shows that it is the poor and minority families who are taking the most advantage of the voucher program in D.C. and benefitting the most from it.

"Poor and poorly performing students, as well as minorities will be corraled into virtual day care center, with little or no money for materials, books and repairs to buildings, no good teachers and graduate with little or no usable education."

I'd suggest that this is already the case in public schools all across the country. This is exactly why we need school choice, so poor, poorly performing and minority kids, as well as middle class, high performing and non-minority kids, can choose to go to a school that actually teaches them something worthwhile. Right now, most have no choice.

America was founded on the freedom to choose: which religion (if any) to believe in, which political party (if any) to join, where to live, where to work. So why should I not be able to choose what school my children attend (if any)? Why shouldn't everyone have that choice?

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