Learning a lesson from school vouchers

CHAMPAIGN, Ill. (U-WIRE) — Reform. America always wants to reform some system — Social Security, welfare, taxes or health care. Politicians continue to market themselves under a select few of these agendas. The best way to gain support is to choose the problem deemed most “hot” in public-opinion polls and then promise to fix it. Do they ever fix these problems? No, but it might get the politician elected.
Some newly elected officeholders campaigned on yet another type of reform: education, an obvious area of interest because a lot of voters are parents. A good number of parents seem to believe public schools are not fulfilling their roles. As a result, Cleveland, Maine, Vermont and Milwaukee have united in their efforts for school voucher programs. At the same time, Florida is expected to start the first statewide voucher.
Vouchers are stipends given to children who go to “bad” schools so they may attend a different school. Apparently someone came up with the idea that the best way to help disadvantaged students is to remove them from their surrounding environments. So, a select few children are given the opportunity to get out of jail, pass go and collect $200 (actually between $600 and $2,600).
Policy-makers proposing vouchers mention that children are trapped in failing schools; those students who receive failing grades (in Florida’s program) are the ones who can receive vouchers. If I was a student in Florida and wanted to go to another school, I would start failing.
Pretend we have a student to whom we have decided to give a voucher. What is this child supposed to do with it? We expect the student to use the voucher to go to a private or parochial school. Taxpayers’ money is used to fund private schools, ignoring the constitutional controversy raised by funneling tax dollars to religious schools. Who even pays attention to the separation of church and state anymore anyway?
Forget the First Amendment, and also think about the presumption involved: Private schools are better. Parents of poor children should be willing to cover the difference between tuition and the vouchers to get their children the best education. Unfortunately, the really good private, inner-city schools cost thousands more than vouchers cover.
What is inherently better about private schools? Is it that you have to pay more?
Proponents argue that our schools will become better if they are forced to compete. Facing a loss of funding, public schools will have an incentive to improve.
Compete with whom? I must be missing something, because I never thought of primary public education as a business. Public education was not meant to be a competitive corporation. Money that could fund schools would suddenly start funding vouchers.
The same amount of money that would be used for one child will be diverted toward vouchers. How will this hurt a school? The funds that pay for the child will be gone — AND so will the child. Or, more than the normal amount of money spent on one child will be used for his or her voucher. Since voucher money comes from public schools, this will hurt funding for the remaining children.
Neither of these possibilities is going to force schools to compete. So the public is left to believe that in order to create better schools we should award vouchers to a select group of students to create a new pseudo-busing program.
Here’s a novel idea: Let’s create better schools! It sounds revolutionary, but the idea that vouchers are expected to improve schools is ridiculous. Comprehensive programs to change the schools themselves are needed. We might start by giving them enough money to provide adequate teachers, books and facilities.
Another amazing fact that policy-makers seem to want to forget is that there is a reason poor neighborhoods have bad schools. Most of the funding for public schools comes from property taxes. If a community is wealthy enough to have expensive housing (usually not found in the inner city), it is going to have schools that are well-funded. The use of property tax-based funding creates a gap in education and performance; vouchers are only a Band-Aid placed on a poorly amputated leg.

Julie Novak’s column originally appeared in Friday’s University of Illinois Daily Illini.