The Voucher Threat

Many public schools in urban areas have such problems that it may be tempting to consider vouchers a legitimate reform. Don't be fooled. The very survival of public education is at stake.

A Rethinking Schools Editorial

It is difficult to exaggerate the importance of the debate over vouchers. Not since the U.S. Supreme Court’s Brown decision in 1954 outlawing “separate but equal schools” has there been a controversy of such social and educational impact.

The Wisconsin Supreme Court this summer upheld the constitutionality of a Milwaukee program providing publicly funded vouchers for private schools, including religious schools. With that decision, which is being appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court, the issue has taken on a new urgency.

Supporters of vouchers have successfully used the rhetoric of parental choice and equal opportunity to obscure the real issues. But at its most fundamental level, the voucher movement poses five threats:

  • Vouchers batter down the separation between church and state. For over 200 years, our constitutional protections have helped safeguard religious freedom and reduce heart-wrenching divisions so apparent in regions such as the Middle East and India/Pakistan.
  • Vouchers bolster the right-wing’s attempts to undermine social services and reduce government responsibility for the social good. Voucher schools in Milwaukee, for example, do not have to abide by open meetings and records laws, nor administer state tests, nor hire certified teachers, nor even provide information such as the racial breakdown of students.
  • Vouchers turn back the clock on hard-won gains. Milwaukee voucher schools argue they do not have to provide special services to students with disabilities. Further, the vast majority refused to sign a letter that they will honor constitutional rights such as free speech and due process, and will not discriminate on the basis of sexual orientation, pregnancy, or marital status.
  • Vouchers are a diversion. Vouchers not only take money away from underfunded urban districts, they divert attention from much-needed reforms such as smaller classes, improved teacher training, and a more innovative curriculum.
  • Last, and most important, vouchers would decimate public education. Public schools are subject to public scrutiny and debate; the goal, no matter how much districts may fall short in practice, is to make decisions based on what is best for all children. Vouchers, in contrast, are beholden to the rules of the marketplace. As is clear in all other social arenas – be it housing, employment, or healthcare – the marketplace always favors the individual choices of those with power, money, and privilege.

Many people have not always appreciated the threat from vouchers, and for understandable reasons. Who can disagree that public schools, particularly in urban areas, fail too many students? Further, the true powers behind the voucher movement – the leaders of the Religious Right and the Republican Party, the titans of corporate America such as John Walton of Wal-Mart, and the free market ideologues of right-wing think tanks – have been adept at selling the myth that vouchers are merely an attempt to provide low-income kids, especially African Americans, the same chance as affluent whites to attend private schools.

The True Goal: Universal Vouchers

Nothing could be further from the truth. The true goal is the privatization of public education via a universal voucher program available in every district, open to every student, and encompassing every private, for-profit, or religious school that can find a place to hang a shingle.

Vouchers for low-income families in beleaguered urban districts are merely a tactic. As voucher advocate Daniel McGroarty wrote in a recent strategy paper for the Milton and Rose D. Friedman Foundation, “means-tested vouchers may prove a viable beachhead” – a way “to win and hold new ground in the long march to universal school choice.”

We do not criticize parents who turn to vouchers in an attempt to do what is best for their child. And we recognize that there are many talented and committed teachers in private schools. But we have little sympathy for policy-makers who abandon public education and who argue that vouchers and privatization are the answer to our country’s educational shortcomings.

In this issue of the paper, Rethinking Schools is pleased to present a 4-page insert outlining arguments against the voucher movement. We also encourage readers to get a copy of our 88-page booklet, Selling Out Our Schools: Vouchers, Markets, and the Future of Public Education.

Advocates of equity and social justice must keep a sharp focus on reforming public schools and demanding that they fulfill their responsibility to educate all children. There is no doubt that public schools must do a much better job of giving students the skills they need to understand, maneuver in, and improve society. However, we must not be tricked into thinking that the only alternative is a system of private schools and for-profit endeavors.

Public schools are essential to reaching our potential as a more democratic America. The voucher movement betrays that potential. Its goal is the dismantling of public education.