School Vouchers – What’s all the hullaballoo?
By John D. Turner
10 Aug 2002

The Supreme Court recently ruled on the Constitutionality of school vouchers and voted 5-4 that the establishment clause in the First Amendment is not violated, at least not by the voucher program initiated in Cleveland, which was the subject of the court case. This paves the way for other interested communities to set up their own voucher programs, based on the Cleveland model. Depending on whom you read, this is either manna sent from heaven, or the worst possible thing that could ever happen to education in this country.

It doesn’t seem to matter on which side of the fence you sit, conservative or liberal, you can find someone who will make a case for both sides of the argument.

The National Education Association, of course bemoans the whole concept. At their recent annual convention in Dallas, fighting against any voucher plan was articulated as their first and most important goal. The reason vouchers are bad, according to the NEA’s outgoing president Bob Chase, is that first, “it is driven by ideologues…not by teachers ad other educators,” and second, it rests on “the big lie…that public education has failed.”

If public education isn’t failing, then I would like to hear their definition of “success”. Oh sure, there are good public schools. Some of them are outstanding. But many are woefully inadequate, and getting worse. While our children may score head and shoulders above all others in the world in self-esteem, their actual knowledge, as measured on standardized tests such as the SAT continues to drop. Oh yes, there was a recent increase to be sure. However that occurred because they “renormed” the test, not because of any increase in knowledge.

It might surprise some to learn that even conservatives view school vouchers with trepidation. That is because we have come to understand over time that nothing comes from government programs, be they federal, state, or local, without some kind of strings attached. If they aren’t there now, rest assured, they will be eventually. Once the private schools are hooked on the government voucher money, they will have to dance the to the government’s tune. Compliance with federal, state, or local guidelines on employment. Compliance with federal, state, or local guidelines on what is to be taught in the curriculum. The fear is that before too long, instead of the public schools becoming better through competition with the private sector, the private schools will come to resemble the public schools, and there will be nowhere left to turn.

Also, so the argument goes, the influx of voucher money will cause the cost of private school tuition to skyrocket, much as government involvement in health care and colleges has caused the cost of those services to balloon out of proportion to inflation.

Money, of course, is the main issue here. As far as the public school system is concerned, the money you pay in property taxes (or what ever means your state uses to support the public school system) is theirs. It is etched in granite. It doesn’t matter whether you send your kids to private school, home school them, or don’t have any kids at all. That is their money, to do with as they see fit. And if they don’t have enough, they will just up your tax rate, or your property valuation, or both if the mood strikes them. And there isn’t anything you can do about it.

The NEA and the public school systems wail about all the money they will lose as a result of students leaving to go to a private school, as if that will cause some sort of catastrophic meltdown of the public school system. Here in San Antonio, the school systems claim it cost between $6-7000 to provide each student with a “quality” education. If instead of paying $7000 to educate a student, I give the student a $3000 voucher to go somewhere else, my math tells me that I have saved the school $4000 in costs, not lost $3000. And with the decrease in the number of students, I can save overhead cost by closing down unneeded infrastructure, and letting go unneeded staff.

But what about those who will loose their jobs? Have I no compassion? (Of course not. I am a conservative, and by definition, have none – at least to the liberal mind.)

In the first place, visit any public school in San Antonio and you will notice that there is a severe overcrowding problem. Even new schools (and we are building many new schools) have temporary “overflow” classrooms built on the school grounds. These buildings, usually resting on cinder blocks, resemble trailers in their construction, and are not intended to be permanent, though many have been here as long as I, who have lived in the area for the past 17 years. Reducing the number of students at the school would allow these inefficient structures to be dismantled, reducing overhead costs. It also seems a bit unfair for parents to pay high property taxes to support a Taj Mahal of a school, only to have their child stuck in a trailer for their education. If the fancy edifice was really necessary to promote a quality education, then isn’t the school depriving their child of that by putting them in the trailer? And if the quality of education in the trailer is as good as that in the edifice, they why spend the money to build the edifice – why not just build trailers to start with?

In the second place, the kids will still have to be educated. That means, no matter where they go, public or private, teachers will be needed to educate them. If a teacher who is let go from the public system is any good at all, they should have no problem finding a job at a private school teaching. If they aren’t any good, then we shouldn’t have been subjugating our kids to them in the first place. The purpose of the education system is supposed to be, after all, educating our children. It is not supposed to be a jobs program for teachers and staff.

I could spend an entire article discussing my opinions on why smaller schools are better for students than large ones, based on my experiences in both. And perhaps I will one day. I will concede that it is better for the school sports programs (particularly football) to have a large student body from which to draw on for players, however I don’t particularly think it good for the students, many of whom will never have the opportunity to play in a large school. And school is supposed to be about the students, remember?

I have recently heard home schooling parents complain about vouchers as well. The concern here is the same as with the private schools, that government will come in and mandate what they must teach, and basically regulate everything they are doing. While the argument may be valid when it comes to private institutions, I believe this to be a specious argument, when it comes to home schooling.

First off, some states already do this. Home schooling laws vary by state. Texas happens to be blessed with some of the most liberal (word used in its dictionary context) laws around concerning home schooling. Basically, Texas considers you to be a private school and doesn’t bother you. There is a requirement to teach five basic courses, but the curriculum you use and how you teach them is up to you. There are no educational or certification requirements that you must meet in order to home school your children, nor does Texas require any scrutiny of the curriculum you decide to use. Other states require you to jump through all sorts of hoops to home school your children, and some wish to outlaw it entirely, or make it so difficult that it will have the same effect. Any state could change its laws tomorrow, and unless you can get together a powerful enough lobby, you will have very little ability to change that legislation. Remember, the NEA and public school system will be against you, and most other families either could care less, or will think you some sort of far-right sociopath for even thinking about home schooling your child. Some even consider it child abuse! So basically, whether you take state money or not, you can be regulated anyway.

Second, if the money comes with strings attached that you don’t like, don’t take it! No one is forcing you. Even if you take the money this year and next year the government imposes some regulation on you if you take the money, so what? You got by without it before, you can do so again. It’s a nice to have, but unlike a real brick and mortar private school, you don’t have to worry about becoming hooked on it. Unless you are doing something with it other than educating your kids, that is.

The bottom line is this. A well educated populous is essential to the maintenance and well-being of a free society. It is also necessary if we are to maintain the standard of living and position in the world to which we have grown accustomed. This is the purpose of any education system, public, private, or home school; to provide an education to the rising generation sufficient to achieve these goals. To this end have the citizens of Texas, for example, agreed to pay property taxes to support the public school system. To this end do people put their kids in private schools, or home school them as they see fit.

When the maintenance of any system of education in and of itself becomes more important than the purpose for which it exists, we do a disservice to our children and our nation. The public school system exists to educate our kids. Our kids do not exist to supply jobs to public school administrators and teachers. The school is supposed to be a place where our children are taught the basics they will need to find good work and raise the next generation of Americans. It is not supposed to be a day care center, a health care provider, a politically-correct indoctrination center, or meals-on-wheels. The cart has been put before the horse. To force citizens to support such a dysfunctional non-competitive monopolistic system with their tax dollars is bad enough. To force them to send their children there by allowing no alternative is unconscionable.

The money you are taxed for education is for educating kids. It should not matter the venue. The only thing that should matter to society is that the kids receive a good enough education to make them productive members of society, not a drain on society’s resources. It is in society’s best interests to see that this happens, whether in public school, private school, or in one’s own home.