School vouchers back on the ballot

BlogHer Original Post

Vouchers. A mere mention of the word can raise the hackles of those at all points of the U.S. political spectrum. And in one U.S. state--Utah--there's been plenty of hissing and heckling and hackle-raising this month.

What's going on, in a nutshell: The Utah state legislature passed a school voucher program, and now there's a measure on the ballot about the program. States watch each others' education policymaking closely, so a voucher program in any state has the possibility to influence policy throughout the country.

An article in the Salt Lake Tribune looks at Milwaukee's large voucher program, and points out that, like public schools, not all private schools are equally meritorious, and moving kids from a public school to a private one does not guarantee an improvement in education in either the newly taxpayer-funded private schools or in public schools that, in theory, should have smaller class sizes. (Unless, of course, those public schools let go of teachers because class sizes get too small.)

I can see both sides of the voucher issue--though, to be fair, my lineage as the progeny of an extended family of public school teachers and administrators, as well as a product of public schools myself, predisposes me to be wary of them. That said, I was particularly moved by Amy P's comment on a post on vouchers at 11D. (I'm going to quote at length from some of the comments on the thread because it's one of the more balanced discussions I've seen on the issue.) Referring to a column by Megan McArdle at The Atlantic, she writes,

I loved this phrase of MM's:

"the lesser sin of viewing real estate purchases as the natural vehicle through which one should excercise educational choice."

That's a very striking way to put the question: why should the purchase of a half million dollar piece of real estate (or equivalent rent) be your passport to a quality education? I could think all day about that without coming up with anything that holds water besides "they paid for that school, so they deserve it" or (as a number of people said on MM's thread) "if there were more minority children, it wouldn't be a good school anymore."

As I've said before, in a world where you can buy one song at a time, mix any paint color you want, and order things like a half-caf iced soy latte, there's no way that the live-in-neighborhood-send-child-to-neighborhood-public-school paradigm is going to hold up. Choice is the order of the day, and eventually parents are going to get it. They may want before care, after care, SAT prep, wall-to-wall AP courses, vocational courses, soccer, lots of time for music practice and instruction, homework help, math-science emphasis, foreign language immersion, community apprenticeships, scripture (whoops! public school! must remain ignorant of foundational texts of Western civilization!), arts emphasis, public service emphasis, International Baccalaureate, whatever.

On the same thread, Elizabeth also makes two excellent points and highlights the hypocrisy that seems to flow from both voucher proponents and opponents:

I'm a reluctant supporter of vouchers for that reason -- while I don't think that they're a substitute for systematic school improvement, I don't believe that we've got a right to hold kids hostage in failing schools while we wait for the systematic improvements.

That said, I think most voucher supporters are also hypocrites -- while there are some who are truly concerned about poor kids, most of them are primarily interested in promoting the free market as the solution to all of the problems in the world and beating up on the teacher's unions.

On the same thread, Doug asks,

Riddle me this, conservatives over here: One of the things I think I often hear conservative people lamenting is the loss of community, the loss of common institutions, loss of common experiences that shape a local or national culture. Fragmentation of the public sphere is put about as a bad thing, part and parcel of general decay that must be fought.

And yet it is a point of conservative faith that public schools -- often called "the common school" earlier in history -- are irretrievably bad and must be replaced by some private-sector non-community approach to schooling. What gives?

And now, a roundup of what others are saying in columns and around the blogosphere:

Magic Valley Mormon summarizes the pro- and anti-voucher rhetoric and explains why she's voting for vouchers by voting for Utah's Referendum 1.

Patrick Byrne of came out in favor of the measure, but he used some pretty inflammatory imagery and language. Voucher proponents and opponents are interpreting his words differently, and, as Tracy Coenen reports, the NAACP wants Byrne to apologize for his comments on minority students, specifically that they be "burned" or "thrown away" because they're not getting a good high school education. Blogger Gary Weiss points out that Byrne's perspective may be colored by the fact that Byrne is, in Weiss's estimation, "a childless bachelor. a product of privilege and private schools who has never had to work a day in his life."

On withdrawing your kids from your neighborhood public school: "I just couldn't sacrifice my son" (to Washington D.C. schools) by David Nicholson of the Washington Post provides a litany of complaints about his neighborhood school's administration and student performance.

There are at least two blogs keeping track of the Utah voucher initiative: Accountability and Against Utah Vouchers. Both are worth a read.

What are your thoughts? Do you/would you send your kids to your local public school? Would a $500 to $3000 voucher each year actually make it possible for you to send your kid to a private school? (In my neck of the woods, probably not, considering I'm getting a steal on preschool daycare, and have been paying $850 a month. I don't want to know how much a year of an actual private K-12 school would be.)

When she's not scrounging for cash to pay for preschool daycare for her 2-year-old, Leslie Madsen-Brooks helps university faculty improve their teaching. She blogs at The Clutter Museum, Museum Blogging, and The Multicultural Toy Box.


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