About a month ago I wrote about the theory of charter schools, and how they haven’t lived up to the promise of becoming "laboratories for reform". I come back to this because several recent commentators have noted a shift in the political/philosophical argument used in support of vouchers - no doubt in response to all the research that has shown charter schools to be no more effective, and often less effective, than traditional public schools.
The emerging argument is one of “choice”, that is, parents have the right to make educational choices for their children, regardless of whether or not those choices result in a better education.
That’s an intriguing argument, but I’m not inclined to debate it. While the deference we give to parental decision-making is not as universal as it once was, for better or worse, our society continues to give a great deal of latitude to parents in how they raise their children.
In that light, I’m even willing to consider (shocker alert) a modest, limited voucher program. The point at which I draw the line, however – and where the line should be drawn - is the point at which charter and private schools begin to siphon resources from traditional public schools, which have, and which will continue to have, the responsibility for educating the vast majority of our children.
Of course, that proposal wouldn’t please anybody, and it’s not what has been suggested in Pennsylvania or elsewhere. None of the ‘take-the-money-with-you’ plans make any allowance for the substantial fixed costs in education (primarily in facilities), and none of these proposals hold the charter and private schools that stand to receive this windfall to the same academic or administrative standards.
For many voucher supporters, this has become a crusade, an attack on the idea of public support for universal education – which has been our country’s single greatest engine for economic success and a democratic society. As Dana Goldstein writes in Slate, “The standards-and-accountability movement has been superseded by a view of education in which public schools are not engines for economic growth but potential corrupters of the nation's youth.”
We appear to be fixin’ to reargue the 19th-century debate on the public’s responsibility towards education for all - and there’s a lot of money (and money to be made) on the pro-voucher side of the debate. But the good news is that “public money for private schools” remains unpopular by substantial margins.