School vouchers leave no parents behind

Matt Telleen

In late August, the Supreme Court ruled in Zelman v. Simmons-Harris that an Ohio school voucher program did not violate the establishment clause of the U.S. Constitution. The government would give parents vouchers from the taxes that pay for public education, and the parents could choose to use that money to pay for private schools. Because 85 percent of private schools are religiously affiliated, some thought that school voucher programs led to the government support of religion, a violation of the separation of church and state. However, the court ruled in yet another 5-4 decision that because the vouchers were given to parents and not directly to the schools, there was no violation of the establishment clause.

Advocates of school voucher programs rejoiced. The establishment clause was seen as one of the last legal hurdles for these controversial programs that are supported by President George W. Bush and many others. Although Zelman v. Simmons-Harris does not completely clear the way – many state constitutions have establishment clause language as or more restrictive than that of the U.S. Constitution – it was nonetheless a major victory for the much-ballyhooed programs that Bush made a primary focus of his education plan when he was running for president.

Supporters will say that school vouchers work on two levels. First, they level the playing field between poor families left with no financial choice except public schools, which they will tell you are failing miserably. Private schools provide a better education for a cheaper price, they say, and vouchers will allow poor families to take advantage of these wonderfully efficient institutions.

At the same time, when public schools start losing customers -students – to their competition – other schools – they will be forced to improve their product to compete in a suddenly competitive market. Eliminating the monopoly the public schools own on education will force their giant, slow-moving bureaucracies to re-evaluate their failing programs and wasteful spending policies or they will fail and be shut down.

Parents get to choose better schools, and the schools they leave will improve or be destroyed. A perfect solution, except that it’s not. The logic behind school vouchers is reliant on so many false assumptions and faulty conclusions it’s amazing that anyone can be expected to believe it. Let’s start with the voodoo economics supporting the premise that private schools do anything better than public schools. Private and public schools are always compared on a per-student education cost. This couldn’t be more misleading. Private schools choose their students. If a student is not up to standards, either academically or behaviorally, they can either kick them out or never admit them in the first place. Public schools have no such luxury. As long as we remain a society that believes in compulsory education, every student, including those with no interest or aptitude for scholastic study, must remain in school. In these cases, that school is almost always a public one.

In addition, private schools can reject or refuse transfer students, where public schools receive new students every day of the school year – not just from other schools, but from other districts, other states and other countries. In the best scenarios, these students have to adapt to a new curriculum. In the worst, they have to learn a new language before they can even begin. Public schools educate children dealing with immigration, homelessness, foster care, legal trouble and substance abuse. Private schools never have to admit these students, let alone keep them when they become a distraction for other students and a burden for faculty and administration.

With all these problems in the public schools, it’s no wonder many children whose parents can afford to send them somewhere else choose to do so. And shouldn’t every parent have that choice? This is where voucher programs fail. If vouchers were a separate program with separate funding – akin to scholarships for children in public schools whose parents want a new option – this would seem unassailably fair and potentially beneficial for all involved. But when a child leaves on a voucher, they take their funding with them. And the public school they left is in no better position to educate the children left behind. In fact, they might be worse off because the children who leave aren’t likely to be the ones that are creating the myriad problems public schools face.

Because vouchers are driven by the parents, it will be the parents most involved in their children’s education who take advantage of the voucher programs. Any educator will tell you that the biggest key to educational success is parental involvement in a child’s education. Teachers and other school staff have only so much power. If there are no consequences for bad behavior at home, there is often nothing educators can do to facilitate changes in negative behavior. So when a public school has a student whose parents are concerned about the quality of the education their child is receiving, that is half the battle right there. Now those kids will have the opportunity to transfer to better schools. This is clearly a great opportunity for them, but what about the children left behind?

Wasn’t Bush’s educational policy centered on the slogan, “No child left behind?” It wasn’t “No parent left behind,” was it? Vouchers, more than any other suggestion for educational reform, leave children behind. They leave children in schools that the administration admits are failing. They leave them there to wait until the schools are shut down and they are shipped to other schools students and administrators have abandoned.

Make no mistake: School vouchers bring about two major policy changes that no one is advocating, at least out loud. The first is the privatization of education. As public school after public school is left under-funded to deal with the major hurdles of educating the children left behind, they will be shut down if they can’t compete in the new competitive educational environment. No one discusses what will replace them or whether they will be replaced at all.

The second policy change is that we don’t need to educate every child. Parental choice taken to the next logical step means that parents who choose, either actively or passively, to play no role in their children’s education will watch those children fail. And that’s OK, because it is the parent’s job to be more involved. This is a major change from an ideal that all children deserve an equal opportunity to at least receive an education. There will always be bad parents, but by giving each child an education, we as a society decide that it will not be the quality of your parents that determine your ability to succeed.

If the public schools are failing, vouchers are nothing more than a stop-gap measure that undermines the public education system while leaving many of the most needy and helpless children behind.


Matt Telleen’s biweekly columns appear Mondays. He welcomes comments at [email protected]. Send letters to the editor to [email protected]