'There They Go Again, Bashing Vouchers'
When a commentator reports on a problem in the public schools or proposes an alternative to the current means of delivering public education, defenders of the public school system are quick to characterize such commentary or proposals as "bashing public schools."
Having characterized the reporting of low test scores and value of parental choice as an attack, this then provides a convenient excuse for those same defenders to "bash school choice" and to lob objection after objection in the direction of school vouchers and their supporters.
We can agree that there is much to be said for public education, and that most students will remain where they are regardless of what options are made available. I say this as one who has spent a lifetime involved in public education, as a student, parent, teacher, and union leader, among other things.
However, this does not mean that the present system of public schools meets the needs of all students, or even 90 percent. Few of the most vociferous defenders of the current system would argue that point.
But even 10 percent of the current enrollment means that the parents of nearly 5 million students would be looking at exercising their constitutional right to select the best school for the children. The sticking point comes when we talk about how best to provide parents with the means to exercise that right.
Money, Money, Money
The issue is money. If you have it, you have choice or, as Ohio State Senator Patrick Sweeney (D-Cleveland) has said, if you have a checkbook, you have a voucher in your pocket.
If that voucher is publicly funded, critics claim that takes money away from public schools. They really are claiming that public schools should be funded for students they don't have--but only voucher-funded students they don't have, not students who leave to go to other public schools.
For example, Cleveland lost 75,000 students between 1972 and 1997, with enrollment dropping from 150,000 to 75,000. Should the district still be reimbursed for 150,000 students?
Choice Is "Bashing"?
To choose one school over another is not "bashing" the rejected school. Millions of students attend a college of their choice, and no one suggests that selecting college "A" is somehow an attack on college "B."
Choice Would "Cream"?
Why would most of the best students leave a school where they are doing well? They don't. In Edgewood, Texas, where all students were offered a privately funded voucher this past school year, district officials concluded that the students who accepted vouchers were typical of the district's enrollment.
More importantly, though, if most of the parents of the best students did decide that their children would be better served by transferring to other schools, should they be forced by law to remain where they do not wish to be? As Milwaukee Mayor John O. Norquist recently noted, we don't want "forced" neighborhood schools any more than we want forced busing.
Picking and Choosing Students?
While private schools can reject students, in fact most rarely do if space is available. And while they can more easily expel students than public schools can, they rarely do that, either.
Even though critics claim that selectively pushing out less-able students is one way private schools maintain their edge over public schools, schools of choice typically graduate virtually all of their students. Public schools, on the other hand, have drop-out rates--which include a "push-out" component--that often run in excess of 50 percent for many urban schools.
Do Businesses Choose Their Customers?
"Who really chooses?" ask critics, claiming that schools pick students rather than students picking schools. But no school can choose students who do not apply, and most students get their first choice of school. In fact, it is the public schools that pick students, since the school district establishes its schools and tells the students which school they must attend. Public school parents have no choice other than the district's mandate.
Public schools do not have to educate everyone, only those students who live in the school district. Nor do they actually "educate" all their students, since many drop out or graduate with limited skills. While there are compulsory attendance laws, no state compels attendance at a public school, so long as the child is enrolled somewhere. Also, public schools send an estimated 100,000 of their students to private institutions for their education.
Opponents charge that vouchers lead to fly-by-night schools, but they provide no evidence that any such taxpayer rip-offs have occurred--or even occurred to the same extent that such criminal activity occurs in the public schools. For example, as much as $1 million in anti-poverty education funds was illegally diverted to political activities by officials at Clemente High School in Chicago.
Wrongdoing at a private school usually leads to the school's demise, because parents don't choose the school any more; despite wrongdoing at public schools, these schools still get students and funds assigned to them.
Which Is Better?
Most observers note that students in schools of choice perform better than those in the public schools--but critics disagree.
An independent study of the Cleveland voucher program found that students gained in the first year. However, public education establishment defenders instead cited the officially authorized study by Indiana University, which reported that students had not gained during the first year. When Indiana University researchers recently reported significant gains by the end of the second year, these findings were greeted with silence by those who hailed the first year's report.
But what if researchers still found no gains? If choice students do as well at a cost of $2,500 a year as their peers do at over $7,000 a year in the Cleveland public schools, which is the better program?
Are nonpublic schools less accountable than public schools? Public schools are accountable to taxpayers for reporting how public money is spent. They are not accountable to parents for results--as inner-city parents know all too well.
Nonpublic schools not only must report on how they spend money, but they also are accountable to students and their parents for results--because the customers can leave if they are dissatisfied. Public schools of choice, such as magnet, alternative, and charter schools, also are accountable for results.
If choice opponents really believe that vouchers are unconstitutional, why do they spend millions of dollars fighting legislative battles that are, by their reasoning, irrelevant? If the courts will throw out such laws, there is no need to oppose their passage. In fact, various forms of school choice have been upheld in a growing number of court decisions.
Level the Playing Field?
Critics charge that private schools and charter schools can do better because they don't have to follow all the rules and regulations that bind public schools. But the forces that complain about the unlevel playing field are the same ones who try to block any effort to deregulate public schools. Reformers and nonpublic school officials are not the ones who oppose deregulation of public schools.
Again, Money, Money, Money
If a level playing field is the goal, why do opponents object to nonpublic schools receiving as much money as the public schools--or, indeed, any money at all? The typical nonpublic school operates at a cost that is one-half to one-third that of the public schools.
It's a Free Country
The school choice movement could be slowed significantly by one simple strategy: Make public schools so good that no one wants to leave. But even then, people still have their own reasons for selecting one school rather than another. In a free society, that's the way it should be.
David W. Kirkpatrick, a former public school teacher, is director of the School Choice Project at the Allegheny Institute, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. He can be reached by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.