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Private School Vouchers
Proposals to use private school vouchers,
a marketplace strategy, as a mechanism by which to improve the general
quality of public education have produced a lively debate. Frequently,
that debate has degenerated into a disagreement about whether public schools
are as good as private schools or whether a given private school is better
than a certain neighborhood public school.
Other issues raised in these discussions
include the appropriate use of public funds, the role of competition in
improving public education, and the right of parents to choose a school
for their children. Although these issues are of interest, they are not
the fundamental questions which must be raised about the future of public
schools in a democracy.
Two Core Issues
In their rush to the marketplace, the
proponents of private school choice supported by public funds have chosen
to ignore two core issues. First, the advocates of private school choice
studiously avoid any discussion of the relationship between public schools
and the common or public good in a democracy. As an example, the Governor
of Wisconsin asserts that “any school that serves the public is a public
school” and should therefore receive public funds through a voucher system.
There is no recognition in this proposal of the distinct and unique purpose
of public education in serving the public good. This rhetorical sleight-of-hand
does not mean that a private school of choice becomes a public school in
purpose simply by so defining it. The claim is merely a device to divert
public funds for private purposes.
The failure to recognize that public schools
have a central responsibility in a democratic society is further evidenced
by the work of John Chubb and Terry Moe, who argue that improving the efficiency
and quality of public education will require the replacement of democratic
governance by market mechanisms.
The authors state, “The most basic cause
of ineffective performance among the nation’s public schools is their subordination
to public authority. … The school’s most fundamental problems are rooted
in the institutions of democratic control by which they are governed”.
Chubb and Moe deny the historic purposes
of public schools when they reject the idea that educational policy should
be directed by a common vision or purpose. They assert, “It should be apparent
that schools have no immutable or transcendent purpose. … What they are
supposed to be doing depends on who controls them and what these controllers
want them to do”. The Thompson proposal for Wisconsin’s schools embraces
this belief system it is a denial of the fundamental role of public education
in affirming the public good.
A second issue which remains unexamined
in the rush to the marketplace concerns the claims offered in defense of
private school choice. Choice is offered as a “lesson learned” rather than
a proposition to be examined. Advocates of private school choice have ignored
its history. Despite the claims made for a market-based school restructuring
strategy, the history of choice does not support the claims of its proponents.
A Declaration of Crisis
Willingness to abandon strong support
for public schools and to turn to marketplace solutions is driven by a
crisis rhetoric. This rhetoric, which suggests that public education is
failing, is not only misleading, it is dangerous because it may erode public
confidence in the very institutions on which our capacity for a democratic
Criticism of public education has continued
unabated since the publication of A Nation At Risk in 1983. Stimulated
in large part by new international economic realities, by a domestic economy
based on traditional production models, and by changing domestic demographics,
the critics have sought solutions to these challenging problems by turning
to schools and educators. The data cited by critics of public schools were
accepted at face value until the late 1980’s. However, since then, a variety
of research reports have revealed that much of the criticism has been simplistic
and has distorted and misrepresented the conditions of public education.
The credibility of the crisis-in-education
claim, in fact, rests not on immutable evidence of school failure but,
rather, on a linkage which has been established by critics between education
and other social problems such as violent crime, drug use, family instability,
and economic uncertainty. Although schools are not charged directly with
creating these problems, the public is turning to public education for
solutions to broad and complex social conditions. This occurred in the
1950’s in response to the Russian scientific and military challenge, in
the 1960’s in response to the challenge of racial segregation, and again
in the 1980’s in response to the challenges