By JOHN M. CRISP
Down here in Texas, another attempt to create a school voucher system is developing, driven largely by the influence and money of James Leininger, a San Antonio physician and businessman.
Leininger is very rich, very conservative, and very well connected to Texas power at the highest levels. He’s worked hard for years to make school vouchers a reality in Texas, with campaign contributions for pro-voucher candidates and with the deft application of influence among our legislators.
So far, this effort has been unsuccessful, but the pro-voucher forces are determined and persistent. Several voucher bills are being floated in the legislature, and on February 7 a couple of thousand parents and children rallied at the state capitol in support of vouchers.
Ordinarily, vouchers are pictured as a boon for low-income, minority students whose parents can’t afford to send them to private schools, which are assumed to be more effective and efficient than public schools. This emphasis, euphemistically called “school choice,” has considerably more appeal than does the likely result of a complete voucher program: a significant windfall for those who can already afford to send their children to private schools, as well as the eventual dismantling of the public school system entirely.
While many voucher advocates are responding to the assumed weaknesses of public schools, in fact, support for vouchers, in Texas and elsewhere, often has less to do with the quality of education than with philosophy.
For example, Andrew Coulson, the editor of www.schoolchoices.org, favors removing the government from education and submitting it entirely to the forces of the marketplace. He would like to de-regulate schools after the fashion of airlines and electricity. In short, his formula for education reflects a conservative distaste for government involvement of any sort in matters that individuals should be managing themselves, like the education of their children.
Coulson’s position isn’t unreasonable, but it undermines the persistent argument that vouchers will actually be good for public schools because they will force them to be more competitive. In fact, a complete voucher program would likely strangle the already none-too-lavish budgets of public schools, and Coulson would probably get his wish, the demise of public schools.
Public schools are hardly inevitable, but permit a few words in their defense. While many Americans assume that they’re hopelessly inefficient sinkholes of ignorance and apathy, I suspect that the case is often overstated. In fact, in “The Atlantic Monthly” of October 1997 Peter Schrag points out the surprising finding that about 70 percent of us actually believe that our local schools are doing just fine. In many respects public schools’ attempt to serve the diverse needs of all of our citizens has been a great success story, and surely some of the credit for the development of our fine nation should go to our sometimes fumbling but unrelenting efforts at public education.
The fact is, we’ve always known how to produce an excellent public education, and we’ve often done so when we’ve been willing to commit the resources. I’m happy to assert that public schools served me very well, and more recently my nephew received a good education in a clean, modern public school. He learned math, literature, and the trumpet; now he works for NASA. But our nation’s greatest educational failure has been our unwillingness to provide the resources in all of our schools to make this sort of education available to all students.
But good public schools require more than resources. In many respects, they reflect, rather than create, our culture. If they find it difficult to teach reading and writing effectively, they’re reflecting the diminishing interest in reading and writing in our culture. If they’re content to provide clean, modern, technologically advanced campuses for some students, but not all, they’re being consistent with growing inequalities in our culture at large. If they pay the football coach more than the math teacher, they’re merely reflecting our own inordinate infatuation with sports.
In short, it’s asking a lot for our public schools to be better than we are. Nevertheless, achieving excellent public schools for everyone is a noble goal that could contribute enormously to our sense of unified nationhood. Vouchers, unfortunately, move us in the opposite direction.
(John M. Crisp teaches in the English Department at Del Mar College in Corpus Christi, Texas. E-mail: jcrisp(at)delmar.edu.)