Wednesday, October 20, 2004

the debate is everlasting

There are numerous views on topics concerning America’s public school
system, a more recent one involving the issue of school vouchers. “Voucher
plans, first suggested in 1955 by conservative economist Milton Friedman, are
designed to return tax monies to parents of school-aged children for tuition use
in a variety of authorized public and private educational settings. There are
those, including Commentary editor Gary Rosen, who believe school vouchers are a
valid means of improving both public and private education; and then there are
those, among them the National Education Association, who oppose vouchers,
saying that they only serve to destroy educational integrity.

Those who support the idea of school vouchers, including Rosen and Denis Doyle
claim that “competition will spur public school improvement, vouchers will
reduce the cost of education, students who get vouchers will show dramatic
achievement gains, and vouchers are a success in most industrialized nations.”
The NEA article, entitled School Vouchers: The Emerging Track Record tries to
prove that vouchers are destroying the public school system. The author divides
the article up into points of failure that the voucher systems in place already
have shown. Rosen composes his article, entitled Are School Vouchers
Un-American? to disprove the claims that the NEA and other anti-voucher programs
have previously stated. Three major points he, in rebuttal to the article by the
NEA and other works by authors including Janet Ferguson and The American School
Board Journal, talks about and then sets out to prove/disprove include the
constitutionality of vouchers, whether vouchers will act as a “subterfuge for
segregation,” and whether voucher schools can be held accountable.
Rosen begins by explaining the views held by the NEA concerning the
constitutionality of vouchers, quoting the NEA’s position that “a lucky few may
be helped by the government’s willingness to underwrite private education, but
society as a whole…will inevitably suffer from a policy so contrary to our most
fundamental civic principles and institutions” and that “vouchers violate the
bedrock principle of separation of church and state [by forcing] all taxpayers
to support religious beliefs and practice with which they may strongly
disagree.” Rosen then goes on to battle these ideas by citing numerous Supreme
Court cases in which the court has ruled in favor of public aid to private
(often religious) schools. Some of these included the significant Zobrest v.
Catalina Foothills SD, Agostini v. Felton, and Witters v. Washington Department
of Services for the Blind. These cases all involved issues where, according to
the Supreme Court, monetary assistance was “permissible when it [came] about as
part of a broader, religiously neutral program and when its benefits accrue[d]
to religious schools only indirectly, through the private decisions of
individuals.” In the issue of school vouchers, Rosen points out that the voucher
programs already in place in cities such as Milwaukee and Cleveland fit the
requirements laid down in these cases: that “families may opt for a religious or
a secular school, and the schools themselves receive public funds only as a
result of these private choices.”

Another crucial point to the NEA’s disputes against school vouchers includes
the idea that they serve as a “subterfuge for segregation” and that they will
turn “public schools into an enclave of the poor.” The NEA claims that the
voucher system has a “destructive effect…on America’s democratic ethos” in the
way that students with vouchers are selected to attend private and alternate
schools. Representatives from the NEA claim that those on the higher end of the
academic and socio-economic spectrums are the ones benefiting from voucher
programs, and that, because of this, schools are being segregated once again,
this leading to “further racial, socio-economic class, and religious isolation.”
Rosen disputes this, claiming that private schools are a better model of the
so-called American idea of the “melting pot” in that they typically “enroll
students from different parts of the community,” while public schools “tend to
reflect the ethnically homogeneous make-up of their neighborhoods.” A positive
effect of this is that private schools tend to be “more racially integrated than
public schools” and “are also home to more interracial friendships and less
race-related fighting.”

A third dispute between the supporters of the NEA and the supporters of school
vouchers includes the amount of accountability provided in the voucher system.
The NEA sites that the voucher systems already in place in Milwaukee and
Cleveland are not being held accountable either financially or academically.
According to their statistics, “Milwaukee voucher schools do not have to…report
test results” and that four of these “were shut down because of fraud,
mismanagement, or negligence.” The author goes on to claim that voucher schools
in Cleveland were even less accountable than those in Milwaukee, with one of
them employing “instructors [who] did not have teaching licenses, and one
[having been] convicted of first-degree murder.” The article also claims that
five of these schools “were able to collect $1.4 million in vouchers prior to
completing their application process, resulting in schools with serious fire
code violations, health hazards, inadequate curricula, and unqualified
teachers.” Rosen admits that accountability with these schools can be difficult,
and even goes on to admit that private schools vary in quality and some have
been “truly awful.” He counters, though, that “the vast majority are reasonably
well managed and…employ educators profoundly committed to their disadvantaged
students; most working for a fraction of what their unionized public school
counterparts earn.” Rosen then goes on to state that, even more important than
this is the fact that private schools are held to the same standards as public
schools concerning state regulations on “health, safety, attendance, and the
basic structure of curriculum” and that “in order to qualify for vouchers, they
often must meet other requirements as well, some of these including
nondiscrimination laws and accounting practices. He claims that the NEA and
other anti-voucher programs seek to require more standards in the private school
setting merely to “drive away as many private schools as possible.”

I can’t say that I fully agree with either side of this debate. In order to
make a fully-educated decision, it would be necessary to do quite a bit more
research from other, not-so-biased, people and organizations. Each of these
articles, though, had good points to ponder concerning vouchers. I definitely
have to disagree on the abolishing of school-assignments based upon home
addresses in public schools, which was a point brought up in the pro-voucher
argument. I think this would cause more stress than anything else. As mentioned
in my previous essay, if this happened in Reno, we would end up having half of
Reno parents trying to get their children into schools like McQueen and Reed
while Hug and Wooster are left with no students. There would be no benefit
whatsoever to this. I do, however, agree that vouchers help to create a more
diverse “melting pot” of students with the inclusion of those of different
ethnicities, socio-economic backgrounds, and religions.

All in all, I’d say that I stand somewhere between Rosen and the NEA, saying
that the voucher system is by no means perfect, but it definitely has potential
to be a high-quality educational substitute to the school system we have now.