The stakes are high when any essential national purpose is subject to the vagaries of politics, ideology, and opportunities for disproportionate influence by the wealthy and others with vested interests. Under these conditions, it is critically important to look beyond the stated goals of any policy’s proponents to examine the real consequences, intended and unintended, of the proposed policy. Only when policy change is based on a full understanding of the issues at stake, and rests on a clear set of values about the worth of every individual, can we feel secure that those on the receiving end of the new policy, in this case the nation’s children, are protected. When there is an obvious payoff for those who can invest in change, it behooves us to study who they are, and why they are interested. CSF represents many players – those who only care to do good, those who have a secular economic interest in access to capital, and ideologues from the Religious Right who would use the funds for sectarian purposes. In any of these cases, schools that receive vouchers – either existing schools or those created specifically to take advantage of voucher programs – might themselves be good, adequate, or dreadfully bad. There are examples of all three in the voucher experiments currently underway. (See “Grand Illusions”)
To some extent, the need for – and the opportunity presented by – systemic change results from a clear public problem that deserves serious consideration. Public schools vary dramatically in quality, and in the resources available to work on their problems. America has great schools with steady support, both financial and community-based, and it has everything in between those schools, which represent the pinnacle of achievement, and grossly underfunded and underperforming schools. Most of the latter are in the inner cities, rural areas and small-town America, and they cry out for intervention. Some public schools have 100-piece orchestras and others don’t have cafeterias. Some have the financial flexibility for students to experiment with hyperbaric chambers, and others are still hoping for a textbook for every child.
The nature of America’s approach to this national challenge will determine the future of the educational system in America. Publicly funded vouchers, by their very definition, present a powerful redistribution of resources. Data from existing voucher experiments identify many classes of losers in the programs in place:
- students who want a voucher but never get one.
- students who are happy in public schools, but see them weakened by diverted funds.
- students in schools that would receive substantial help from proven reform efforts, if the money hadn’t been diverted to a few students for vouchers.
- students for whom all available private schools are inappropriate for their needs – because of religion, the absence of special programs (including free lunches for the poor and remedial
instruction) or other factors.
- students located where private schools are unavailable, or no better than public schools.
- parents who lack an informed choice because private schools are not required to release information about the quality of education they provide, or the progress or regress of
students in their care.
- students who don’t succeed in private schools, who then must return to public schools that have lost money and community support.
- students who must remain in those public schools regardless of the school’s inability to attract funds to replace those lost because of vouchers.
- the community, whose public institutions are fewer and weaker, and whose tax investment has gone to build capital for profit-making businesses.
- taxpayers, whose money has been separated from public accountability.
- anyone who believes the argument that financially strapped public schools, which must serve all students, will be in a position to compete with moneyed investors equipped with access
to capital and the flexibility to minimize costs and structure programs to appeal to certain children.
Voucher programs, including private scholarship funds, direct money away from schools and children who need the help of all who care about education. In Edgewood, Texas, an already struggling school district was hit with a massive loss of funding, received from the state on a perpupil basis, when privately funded vouchers distributed by a CEO-affiliated program moved large numbers of students out of the school system. Now that school system is less equipped than ever to tackle its problems, to the detriment of the thousands of students remaining in its schools. When school budgets are drained by vouchers, more children lose. When private money and leadership banks on new institutions and starves the ones where the children are, more children lose. After all, there will always be public schools, and they will always need advocates for support.