The moment president-elect Barack Obama and our new first lady began to shop around Washington, D.C., for a private school for daughters Malia and Sasha, proponents of school choice already had their eyebrows well prepared for elevation.
Columnist Cal Thomas commends the Obamas for resisting potential pressure from teachers unions to place their kids in one of Washington’s "miserable" public schools. But he criticizes them for exercising a choice that — he says — they’re willing to deny to millions of Americans who don’t have enough money to send their own kids to private schools.
I support the concept of public schools, but I don’t blame the Obamas for sending their daughters to a private school. It’s one thing to sacrifice yourself for a principle; it’s another to sacrifice your children. And it’s very likely that the private schools the Obamas are considering — at around $28,000 per year — are far superior to the schools that we require the children of our poorest citizens to attend.
In fact, insisting that someone who doesn’t support school choice should send his own children to a public school is to employ the same petulant reasoning that condemns people who support the improvement of public transportation to spending a couple of hours every day riding our inefficient busses and trains to work: "If you like buses so much, fine; ride them and leave me alone to drive my S.U.V."
To extend the comparison: people who never ride public transportation could just as logically insist that any public money used to subsidize transportation should be distributed as vouchers to all citizens. Public transportation would wither, of course; and the rich would get a windfall of a couple of tanks of gas for a hummer, and the poor … well, they might be able to use their voucher money for a few rides in a taxi.
Similarly, a full-blown voucher system would probably mean the end of our public schools. Good riddance, some say, but I’m reluctant to see the end of a system that has actually served our nation well. Public schools have always had their shortcomings, but in many communities they still provide a focus for civic life and a fine democratizing location where the children of the rich and the poor, of all ethnicities, come together on a more or less equal basis. Some still believe that’s a good thing.
Our public schools have never been perfect, but we’ve always known how to create good ones. I’m comfortable asserting the sufficiency of the public school education I received in a small south Texas town in the 50s and 60s; it equaled or exceeded any private school education available in the area.
But the great failure of our public schools has been our unwillingness to provide quality schools for all students, largely because of the way in which public schools are traditionally funded. To oversimplify only slightly: rich neighborhoods have good schools; poor neighborhoods get by with inadequate ones.
"School choice" sounds like an attractive idea, but under a voucher system, the biggest benefit — essentially a tax break — would go to parents, like the Obamas and the Thomases, who can already afford to send their children to private schools. As their funding diminishes, public schools would be superseded by a haphazard assortment of private schools arranged hierarchically according to cost and, therefore, largely by quality, race, and class, as well. And that, many still believe, would be a bad thing.
So if we’re thinking of spreading the wealth a bit, a good place to start would be our public schools. The goal would be to provide the highest quality education possible on a strictly equal basis to every child, from the poorest inner-city youngster all the way to the daughter of the president.
John M. Crisp teaches in the English Department at Del Mar College in Corpus Christi, Texas. Email: jcrisp(at)delmar.edu.