Vouchers and School Choice are Not Necessary

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The issue of "choice", like so many other novel educational reform attempts, serve once again to highlight the fact that something is desperately wrong with the current educational system. While everyone seems to be fully aware of the need for change, no one really knows where to start. In the process of making sense of this need to pin down the problems that beset education, many end up latching on to any novel idea that even vaguely offers the hope of finally bringing that educational calm and success everyone so desperately longs for. The problem with this hit-and-run approach is that it almost always ends up fragmenting the communities and societies that should in fact be pooling their energies and resources on the issue of educational reform. Name me ANY reform movement, and I'll show you at least two camps for each of them - one "for", and one "against".

The proponents of educatonal choice have, over time, carefully built up their pool of arguments in support of its implementation. To fully understand this perspective, and before I share mine, I have selected a collection of quotes from various proponents of educational choice which should present, albeit statically, the central issues underlying the concerns of these and many other students, parents, and teachers. In the process of reading them, please try to focus on the issues they represent rather than the emotions that presently drive them.

"It is time to develop political muscle for parents and children. We know that our urban public school systems are hopelessly broken. We know that unless the parents of children in public schools are able to threaten to enroll their children in competing private schools, the public schools will never be held accountable."

"Lessons must be learned from Voucher Bill Defeat", Joseph Walsh

"The most recent National Assessment of Education Progress reading test reports that 30% of high school seniors, 31% of eighth graders, and 42% of fourth graders couldn't reach "basic" reading levels. Those students who have spent from four to thirteen years in school, don't have even "partial mastery" of the reading skills expected at their grade level."

"The High Cost of Rationing Literacy", Martha C. Brown

"There is no more important issue today than the education of our children. We could possibly disagree that our society - crippled by gang violence, teen pregnancy, and welfare dependancy - would experience a Renaissance if every child received quality education?

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"Statewide the dropout rate is approximately 20%. Even those who graduate are often unprepared for college and must enroll in "remedial" courses or not attend college at all. Graduates from Illinois best public high schools are ill-prepared to compete with students from other states and countries for admission to the nation's top universities"

" The way to return power to parents and local communities is through school choice: giving tax dollars to parents in the form of a scholarship or "voucher" and allowing them to purchase tuition at the schools of their choice."

"Revitalizing Public Education in Illinois", Joseph Walsh

"The resulting choice plan is fully constitutional and a big step toward religious tolerance, religious freedom, and better education."

"School Choice: Church vs. State", Harold Hotelling

"The fact is, education consumers - parents and students - in Chicago's inner city are nearly helpless to make the system provide what they want and need. Private school teachers don't strike, and public school teachers in affluent suburbs do only rarely. In these environments, services to the education consumer takes priority."

"Competition, Not Money, Works Wonders in Education", Steve Sailer

"But, our growing impatience also has come about because the schools remain in a financial quagmire, test scores and graduation rates are almost unchanged, and children do not seem to be learning any more under decentralization than before."

"Replacing Dwarfs with Giants", Sam Redding

These are not nebulous, arbitrary concerns. They are real issues that demand real solutions. Discipline, literacy, powerlessness, and the lack of standards are at the heart of the fears of parents, students, and teachers.

I want to propose that these individuals, and many others, are asking all the proper questions, but are misdirected in their focus.

The extent to which one reform process is charismatically applauded by some and battered into submission by others is symptomatic of the inability of many to look beyond the individual trees in order to focus on the forest. By latching onto the first plausible option and blindly allowing it to navigate the course is tantamount to stripping oneself of, ironically, ones freedom of choice and control over the reform process. I suggest that the answer lies outside the novelty of alternative reform processes and is to be found in dysfunctional processes within the current educational system. If the 85/15 Rule is anything to go by, it would serve us well to shift the blame from those "for" and those "against" to the real culprit - the processes within the current educational system.

Let us for a moment consider one of the more pressing issues at the heart of the choice debate - discipline. As was highlighted in the aforementioned statements and mouthed so often as part of the choice rhetoric, gang violence and disruptive behavior constitutes the "number one concern" for parents, teachers, and pupils. Who, in their sane state, would chose to wake up every morning of the week and send their precious children into a battlefield? What teacher wants to walk into a classroom, powerless to protect the innocent students from violent and disruptive behavior because the system insists on the "rights" of the "disabled student" perpetuating these terrible deeds. Name me one administrator that can sleep at night knowing that every step taken to extricate the gangrenous growth of violence and disruptive behavior from their schools almost always end up with courts routinely returning the offending students to the school. This is the reality of the processes that constitute our current educational system. Given this context, one cannot blame parents for crying out for the choice to remove their children from these situations.

It is at this point, however, that we need to take just one step back and look at the facts before we all run for cover. The facts are that only two or three percent of the student population constitute the violent or chronically disruptive group! Does it therefore make sense to sacrifice public education simply because we refuse to take action on the two or three percent who are violently or chronically disruptive? Why should ninety-eight percent of our children be forced out of public schools because of a marginal minority? Does it make sense to destroy twenty-five or more students because we are trying to "rehabilitate" one? (Shanker, 1995) The answer is a resounding NO! What we should be doing is consolidating the energy we are expending on novel alternatives and use it to, not only to rid the public schools of this disruptive 2%, but also to address the other pressing issues of educational standards, literacy levels, and community involvement - within our existing public schools.

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