Southern Illinoisan (Carbondale, IL), Monday, May 17, 1999, p. 1C
No subsidy for private schools
There are much more promising ways to improve the performance of public schools than threatening them with financial abandonment.
These aren't easy days for public school teachers. A few weeks ago, Gallatin County native Dave Sanders became the second one in a year to earn his pay by taking a fatal bullet while attempting to save his students in Littleton, Colo. from a gun-wielding classmate.
It's hard to identify members of any other occupation who have recently given their lives for children while on the job.
Certainly no politicians or members of conservative think tanks were around when the bullets started flying at Pearl, Miss., Paducah, Ky., Jonesboro, Ark., Springfield, Ore., or Littleton, Colo. Public school teachers would seem to be deserving of new respect and gratitude now that some of them have seen more shots fired in anger than most members of the armed forces.
Not good enough, say the critics.
And so the bandwagon for private and religious schools keeps gaining momentum, most recently in Florida and Illinois.
Both states in recent days have passed voucher and tax credit legislation. The practical effect is to allow religious and other private schools to tap into the public treasury, thereby diminishing the amount of money available for the public schools.
The proponents enthusiastically assure everyone that the goal is not to wreck the public schools but to make them better through "competition," a word whose mere mention is supposed to cause people to bow their heads and genuflect.
Baloney. America is a nation drowning in competition, and there is ample evidence that it would be a better place if fewer people were clawing each other over every last scrap of status, power and wealth. Who knows? There might even be fewer shootings in the schools and elsewhere.
As one example of the limits to competition, consider what has happened to television programming. Can it be said to have improved since the field expanded from three broadcast networks to hundreds of cable channels? Not unless one is prepared to argue that making more violence, sex and vulgarity available to children marks a step forward for civilization. (The five top-rated cable shows for the first week of May were pro wrestling.)
Education, like news and entertainment, is a social good vulnerable to the kind of niche marketing that panders to the lowest common denominator in taste and intellect. Among colleges and universities, a few elite public and private institutions get to choose among the nation's most talented high school seniors applying for admission to next year's freshman class. Schools further down the academic food chain compete for the leftovers. If forced to identify themselves or a school as the cause of academic mediocrity, many parents and students will happily blame the school. The result at lesser universities is often a dumbing down of course offerings and grade inflation in order to maintain enrollments and the jobs that go with them.
There is no reason to believe the outcome will be any different if vouchers and tax credits for private and religious schools become a prevailing feature of elementary and secondary education. The same perverse competition that erodes academic standards at many universities will assert itself from kindergarten through 12th grade. Some of the effects might be dampened by national or statewide standards that would be measured by periodic testing, but that would require the very kind of government role in education that proponents of vouchers and tax credits despise.
There are much more promising ways to improve the performance of public schools than threatening them with financial abandonment. Education strategies stressing higher standards, more personal instruction, parental involvement and teacher accountability have helped low income students make significant academic progress, according to several recently released reports from Education Trust, a nonprofit organization that studies how to improve education for the poor. But the strategies contained in the report require more money to pay for quality teachers, smaller class sizes and other expenses. The money is less likely to be available when state funds are diverted from public education toward private and religious schools.
If some parents want to put their children in a school where homosexuality is treated as a bigger sin than ethnic cleansing and Darwinism is banned in biology classes but revered in economics, that's their right. But they shouldn't expect government help that undermines public schools' vital mission of educating students from all walks of life.
********************************************************* * Jerry P. Becker Dept. of Curriculum & Instruction Southern Illinois University Carbondale, IL 62901-4610 USA Fax: (618)453-4244 Phone: (618)453-4241 (office) E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org