This document is not yet finished. Even a first version of it. I really shouldn't even release this yet, but here are a few starting random paragraphs of something that may one day, be a readable document.

Why the Left should support school vouchers

Attempts to gain public support for laws enable the use of school vouchers have failed. They have failed in part because the programs are widely perceived of as

  1. Undermining public education
  2. A subsidy for the rich
  3. Violating important principles by directing public money to religious organizations
  4. Places choice responsibilities on those who may be ill-equipped to make those choices.
  5. Using non-certified teachers in unaccountable private schools with unevaluated curricula
  6. Going against the wishes of those who know best about education: The Teachers' unions and the public school administrators.
  7. Can "balkanize" society by having children go to school with only "their own kind".
  8. Enables the spread of even more teaching of "creationism" as science, thus undermining the notion of science.

A goal of this essay is to argue that some of those perceptions are misperceptions and that those which aren't misperceptions are not the problems that they initially appear to be. But my primary and fundamental argument is that if we wish to provide the educational opportunities to the poor that are available to the rich, then school vouchers is by far the best proposal on the table to achieve that.

The current system

I live in an upper middle class neighborhood, with a well regarded public elementary school a few blocks away. The fact that that school is well regarded may have added $20,000 to the price of my house.[Note]. Alternatively, I could simply spend thousands of dollars per year to send my child to what I consider to be a good private school. Whether it is through a paying a premium on a house price or paying for a private school, those with money already have some real choice in where their children go to school. Given the persistence of "red lining", race may also be a factor as well as money.

I will do what it takes, given the means available to me, to ensure that my child goes to a good school. But as someone who believes deeply in the notions of equal opportunity and is uncomfortable with the huge differences between rich and poor, I want every child in our society to have the educational opportunities that my child has.

Because of the various ways that people with money can spend it to send their children to better schools, the current system of public education massively fails to provide equal opportunity to all. This is an inevitable consequence of the nature of the current system.

Because the wealthy can afford - either through house purchase or private school - to ensure that their children don't go to what they see as unsatisfactory schools, the differences between good schools and bad schools grows, since the abandoned schools are deprived of wealthy involved parents. Thus, what might start out as a small perceived difference in the quality of schools can develop into a large real differences.

What vouchers do

Vouchers, quite simply, give additional money to families which wish to send their children to private schools, opening the door to vastly more people to attend private schools than can now afford to do so. Most voucher programs also commit a higher level of funding per pupil to the public schools than currently levels.

Voucher programs do not eliminate the differences between what the rich can do for their children versus the poor. Vouchers won't completely cover the costs of all schools for everybody. The rich will still have the piano lessons and ballet lessons that poorer families may not be able to afford. Vouchers don't completely level the educational playing field, but they make it far far less uneven than the current system. Vouchers vastly reduce the current inequality of opportunity. They should not be rejected merely because they don't entirely eliminate those inequalities.

Some (perceived) problems and responses

A subsidy for the rich

Opponents of vouchers often point out that many beneficiaries of vouchers would be those who are already sending children to private schools. That is true, but the fact that those people benefit doesn't change the fact that vouchers makes school choice available to a great number of families that didn't have that choice before.

It also needs to be noted that some voucher proposals (like the failed 2000 California one) has a gradual phase in of the program for those with children already in private school, so it would be a number of years before those with children already in private school would receive full vouchers, while new private school families would get them immediately.

What I would like to see, although I haven't seen it in any voucher program, is to treat vouchers as taxable income for the family or parent. That way, those in lower tax brackets will get more after-tax value in their vouchers than those in higher tax brackets.

Directing public money to religious organizations

Let me for the record that I am an atheist. And when I say "atheist" I don't mean "agnostic". I mean that I believe that there is no God. I strongly object the the "under God" phrase of the Pledge of Allegiance. I uncomfortable with the words "In Got We Trust" on the currency. So, my defense of public money going to support religious organizations should be seen in that light.

In Hungary, after the fall of communism, there was a great deal of deal making between the new conservative government and the two biggest Churches in the country (Roman Catholic and Reformed). Basically, in some towns and villages, the previously public schools are handed over (or handed back) to the Churches, with residents in the towns provided no other choice but to attend religious schools. There was a great deal of debate on this, and at some point, a Roman Catholic Bishop said, "choice of religious education is too important to be left up to the parents." I, and most liberals, were appalled by that statement. My belief is that choice of religious education is too important to not be left up to the family.

We must remember with the voucher project that the State does not pick and choose individual religions to support. Nor is there a winner take all vote. Instead the money follows each individual choice of school by the families. There is no establishment of religion here. There is no one working for the government deciding which school gets funded and which one doesn't. Instead it is millions of families making their own individual choices.

Does that mean that families will make choices that I consider unwise? Of course it does. Will people make what I consider terrible decisions? Yes. But people are already allowed to make terrible decisions with regard to how much television they let their children watch or how much cola drinks their children consume or when their bed times are. But I think school choice will be made thoughtfully ...

Placing choice responsibility on those ill-equipped to make it

Some opponents have pointed out that while middle and upper class families will do the research in picking schools, often those with the most need for better schools will have parents who are themselves poorly educated, so won't be able to make wise choices.

Leaving aside how patronizing such an objection is, it is worth noting how many important decisions are made: Copying those who have done the research. Only a few people in some community need to do the research, and word will quickly spread about who picked what school. Neighbors will look at the choices of others whom they respect. Most of us who aren't experts on cars, use a strong element of advice from friends and neighbors in that regard. Yes, that can lead to some silly fashions, but on the whole it works, with the quality of cars improving year by year.

Using non-certified teachers in unaccountable private schools with unevaluated curricula

Those who defend the value of current credentials and the established curriculum should continue to to defend those. But instead of working to persuade lawmakers of the necessity of those things, they should be working to persuade parents of the necessity of those things. A voucher system will encourage them to take their message to the parents. Explain to the family decision makers why fully trained, credentialed teachers are the best teachers. Schools with all or mostly credential teachers will be able to advertise that fact to the families of prospective students.
This document is under construction

Version: $Revision: 1.7 $
Last Modified: $Date: 2004/07/16 19:13:03 $ GMT
First established April 27, 2001
Author: Jeffrey Goldberg