August 5, 2008

Kids Enter the Free Market

Can vouchers save our schools?

When it comes to education, my experience has been slightly different from most people I know. I attended a private elementary school before switching, in middle and high school, to the public school system. My twin sister attended public elementary school, switched to an inner city magnet school for middle school, and then went to a private high school. Because our parents allowed us to choose where we went to school, we had a vastly different educational experience despite being the same age.

When politicians and public leaders talk about school vouchers, I can’t help but reflect on the variety of atmospheres and approaches that did so much to inform who I am today. I was able to do okay in school in part because I had the luxury to choose a school I liked, and vouchers allow that. At the same time, I’m not wild about the precedent of giving government money to private schools, or the economic concept.

Proponents of school vouchers make a couple good arguments, not the least of which happens to come out of DC. I don’t think anyone can deny that the public schools here are in a pretty bad way, to the tune of a 22% dropout rate (based on what I consider a conservative estimate by the census bureau), and a one in three adult illiteracy rate. The children whose education will be most inadequate will be those in the poorest neighborhoods where there are fewer schools, teachers, and community support systems. In Wards 7 & 8 these numbers bear out with one in two adults who are functionally illiterate. If the public school system can’t help these kids, it is the role of responsible legislators to create a new, more adequate and humane system.

I have yet to decide if vouchers are that solution. The Heritage Foundation, a proponent of school vouchers, points to the DC School Choice Incentive Act that was signed into law in 2004 as a good example of how vouchers can help. Last year 1,900 kids were awarded scholarships of $7,500 toward the private or religious school of their choice, all from families with an annual income under 185% of the poverty line. Not only does this put children in a better learning environment, it also makes public schools better by fostering competition.

But isn’t there an element of danger in the idea of the voucher system? The kids who receive the scholarships, of course, represent the brightest. If vouchers were to be adopted en masse, all students would still have to qualify for the private school of their choice, and most would be rejected. My concern is that the private schools would continue to recruit the best and brightest while discarding the kids they don’t want to the public schools that will be just as broken as they were before. I can already imagine the scenario where politicians rail against public schools for having lower test scores than their private counterparts without acknowledging that they were responsible for creating that system in the first place. Call me cynical, but I don’t think vouchers will actually allow public schools in low-income areas to “compete” any more than they are capable of right now, and there will still be a huge number of kids left there when the private schools are done with their pickings.

If the goal is to raise the standard at low-income schools, a better idea would be to reduce class sizes, have a better system for diagnosing and dealing with behavior disorders and other special needs, and spend the money for specialized programs like music, theatre, art, and sports that are proven to make students feel more engaged. But it doesn’t look like that’s going to happen any time in the near future.

Despite my concerns, there is something to be said for the success stories of students who have found their way into a private school they would not have been able to afford otherwise. The Washington Scholarship Fund, which distributes all vouchers for DC, boasts that of the people they award scholarships to, 90% go on to college. That’s a huge number.

I guess that’s really my problem. There are two different issues. There are the kids that are being left behind right now because of poor resources, and they have no control over their education even though it will have a giant impact on their lives. That’s unacceptable. There’s also the school system as a whole, which I think would be (yes, it’s possible) even worse if there were large-scale voucher programs. That’s also unacceptable.

There were good and bad things about the schools (and types of schools) my sister and I attended. My private school did have smaller classes, but less extracurricular activities, no sex education, and (to put it frankly) segregation by class, race, and a number of other criteria in the selection process. Public school had bigger classes, but more extracurricular programs, more diversity, and better special education programs for kids with specific needs. I agree that kids shouldn’t be limited by what their parents can or cannot afford, but I don’t think I like either of the two options on the table.

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