Tuesday, March 25, 2014

False Choice: Vouchers Will Destroy Public Education

My response to a pro-voucher newspaper editorial.

Yesterday the Times of Trenton printed an editorial arguing for expanded “universal school choice transfers”, a euphemism for vouchers. In the opinion piece’ Israel Teitelbaum, secretary of Alliance for Free Choice in Education, argues that the government should return the money that it collects in school taxes to parents so that they can make a choice about where to send their children to school. Sounds good doesn’t it? What could be more American than choice?

In truth, the first thing that is more American than school choice, is a free, quality public education. American leaders of the past recognized that free access to an education was necessary to maintain a democratic society; to teach young people to live and work together with others and to teach the skills necessary for full participation in a free society. Paying public school taxes, whether or not your children go to a public school or even if you have no children, is a civic responsibility. Some things are not open to choice, even in a free society. We pay taxes for police and fire protection. We pay federal taxes for military protection from foreign enemies. We pay taxes for public parks and recreation areas. We are not individual actors in civic duties. We join together for the common good.

Teitelbaum argues that school vouchers are the “clearest pathway to restore our country to our former greatness.” He is wrong. Vouchers have been in place for poor families in Milwaukee, Wisconsin for more than 20 years. While Teitelbaum sights the opinion of Milwaukee’s mayor that these programs have been successful, he fails to cite actual studies of the program that show that voucher schools do not on average outperform public schools. Teitelbaum also cites the District of Columbia Opportunity Scholarship voucher program, but fails to cite the congressionally mandated study that found “no conclusive evidence that the [vouchers] improved student achievement” (Ravitch, Reign of Error, 2013).

What a universal voucher program will do is destroy public education. Vouchers rob money from the already cash strapped public schools and give it to schools with agendas that are distant from the common good. Yesterday, Politico reported that this year taxpayers will send one billion dollars of their tax money to schools that teach creationism and denigrate 200 years of established science. Is this the kind of choice we want for our public monies? Many voucher schools operate outside of the educational and financial oversight that is built into public education. Many employ unqualified teachers. Fiscal mismanagement is rampant. 

Voucher proponents have argued that school choice will allow low income and minority children to go to a school with their more affluent white peers. Not true. In their new book, 50 Myths and Lies That Threaten America’s Public Schools, researchers David Berliner and Gene Glass, point out that school choice has actually increased school segregation, leaving disadvantaged students, more and more, in segregated under-funded public schools.

Yes, urban public schools have severe problems, but the majority of those problems can be attributed to the effects of poverty. Schools matter, but study after study has shown that poverty matters more. Until our country, and our voucher proponents, are willing to address the issues related to 23 % of our children living in poverty, our promise of a quality education for all will remain an empty promise.

Instead of the market forces voucher scheme promoted by Teitelbaum and many others outside of the education world, what we really need to provide first is relief from the debilitating effects of poverty that yield many children unable to take full advantage of educational opportunity. Then we need to provide all children with an adequately staffed, well-resourced, neighborhood public school. And, yes, we need to use our tax monies to do it.

Voucher programs offer a false choice for a democratic society.