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Topic: Bandwagon for vouchers - Editorial
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Jerry P. Becker

Posts: 16,576
Registered: 12/3/04
Bandwagon for vouchers - Editorial
Posted: May 24, 1999 12:14 PM
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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

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)

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