Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Lancaster Sunday News on Vouchers: Inequality is the Point

All I can say is ,Wow!" Someone in the mainstream media gets it.


Inequality is the point

By Gil Smart, Associate Editor, Lancaster Sunday News

Last week's bit on school vouchers generated more response than I've seen in a while, and most of it -- maybe surprisingly -- was supportive.

There is, I think, a large number of people out there who have experience with our educational system and know it needs to be reformed, but who also realize that the "reforms" being offered by Republicans in Harrisburg (and elsewhere across the country) are less concerned with creating equitable, effective schools for all than they are in creating top-notch schools for some.

Wrote one former teacher: "The major difference between public and private schools is that the public schools must take everyone. But what does that matter to the parents who have the 'wherewithal' to have their kids attend private schools?

"Schools are a reflection of society. Have we become so self-centered that we really don't care about other people who may not have it as good as we do?"


This is key to understanding not just education "reform" in Pennsylvania, but the broader national zeitgeist.

You know how Hillary Clinton wrote that book, "It Takes a Village"? Conservatives are sick of being on the hook for the whole damned village. Conservatives say, look -- I've got my own family, myself, to take care of, and I bust my hump to do so. I worry about mine -- you worry about yours.

This is the bedrock sentiment of modern conservatism, and a big reason conservatives support vouchers. Hey, I care enough about my kid to pull him out of the public schools and put him in an environment I deem preferable -- why shouldn't I have the right to do that, and take my tax dollars with me? That's the thinking.

That's not why the proposal's being pushed, of course. Private and parochial schools stand to benefit fantastically from a new money spigot. And some public schools in Pennsylvania are failing. So under the guise of "fixing" education, Republicans can stick it to the teachers' unions and give a big handout to favored constituencies by embracing "competition." Because competition makes everything better! Or some things.

For competition involves winners and losers, right? So what of the kids in the "loser" schools?

The answer: What of them?

Voucher proponents have decided -- even if they haven't articulated it per se -- that "fixing" the system requires letting the "losers" lose. They dislike public education specifically because of its egalitarianism; it elevates the bottom, in this view, by holding back the top and constraining achievement.

But ideology aside, there are two key, intertwined questions as to the voucher proposal: Will it work, and how will it work?

We can't know the answer to the first question, obviously. But consider that if private and religious schools have an advantage, it's because they "compete" on an unlevel playing field.

Private schools are not obliged to accept all comers, bus students all over creation or show progress on the bevy of standardized tests that bedevil public districts.

Well. When you can say "sorry" to special-needs kids, for example, the cost of educating students drops dramatically. Do you think schools that don't incur those costs have a distinct, unfair advantage?

Of course they do. So if private schools "do a better job" (but how would we know this unless they're taking the same standardized tests?), this is a huge reason why.

If private schools are to get tax dollars, they must play by the same rules. For if we exempt private schools while still requiring public schools to operate under the mandates even as we defund the system, we explicitly create a two-tiered system of education. And the voucher plan, then, is inherently inequitable; the playing field is unlevel by design.

And what you have to understand is, that's the whole point.

Gil Smart is associate editor of the Sunday News. Email him at, or phone 291-8817.

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