Sunday, May 30, 2004

You Can Vouch For This

Almost nothing engenders such controversy with regards to education as school vouchers. Most on the Left see them as little more than a ploy by the Right to undermine public schools, fund religious instruction, and subsidize the rich, while those on the Right see the Left as beholden to teachers unions who refuse to admit that public education has largely failed the poor. There is some truth to both of these positions. For example, there clearly are incentive problems in the public school system when the most qualified science and math teachers are given the same starting salaries as gym teachers (no disrespect to gym teachers). At the same time, the danger of vouchers being used to fund religious instruction is legitimate as this clearly violates the Constitution. Also, vouchers don’t make sense if even with them the poor aren’t able to afford private school tuition; in which case they do basically become subsidies for the well-to-do. So what would an ideal voucher program look like that could most effectively make use of competitive market forces to improve the quality of education, while at the same time allaying these legitimate concerns?

1) Schools that accept vouchers must be required to accept all students. A large proportion of public education funds go to helping students with learning disabilities and emotional problems and private schools that are able to ‘cherry pick’ the best students would have an unfair advantage. They would also increase the already heavy burden on public schools. The bar for expelling problem students must be high as well or this mandate would lack any teeth. Private schools must prove that they compete effectively with the same student pools as do public schools.

2) Schools accepting vouchers must not be allowed to have anything approaching mandatory religious education of any sort. There can be no compromise on this point as this is a bedrock Constitutional issue.

3) School vouchers should be progressive in an effort to ensure that lower income families will be able to put them to good use and truly improve the educational opportunities for their children.

A voucher program that incorporated these three elements should be amenable to those on both the Left and Right since the goal is excellent schools for all of the nation’s children, not the ascendancy of one ideological position or the other.

J.S.

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