So what's wrong with vouchers now?

Posted: Jul 02, 2002 12:00 AM
"I oppose them," says Tony Sanchez. Applause, nods, knee slaps. What does the Texas Democratic gubernatorial nominee oppose? School vouchers. Who's clapping? The Texas Association of School Administrators. Clap away, brethren. A considerable chunk of the ground on which educational bureaucrats have been resisting vouchers fell away just two days after Sanchez's declaration, with the U.S. Supreme Court's affirmation of a Cleveland plan tailored for students in failing public schools. The decision is sensational in both the grammatical and the popular sense. The court creates a proper public sensation, rejecting arguments against vouchers based purportedly on worries about church-state separation. And, yes, the justices (five of them, at least) are gloriously, sensationally right. It's a great day for education. Maybe. Sanchez and the school administrators remind us that the obstacles to enactment of a reasonable voucher system for Texans are neither small nor despicable. Sanchez, asked about vouchers, doesn't bother to explain his opposition. He knows what his audience wants to hear. He snaps out, "I oppose them." The audience eats it up with a spoon. Next question. My next question: Why? Cleveland's Pilot Project Scholarship Program, which the U.S. Supreme Court found constitutional, has as its purpose the provision of educational opportunity to poor children badly served by the public schools. Some 4,500 children under the program have the right and the money (up to $2,250 each) to attend a private school. Consider first of all the meaning of this: The public schools are failing those whom they were designed to assist. That is the basic meaning. And the basic meaning of the education bureaucracy's opposition to vouchers? Tough -- that is the meaning. The schools may not be any good, but that's beside the point, you see. It's the civic obligation of poor children to attend them anyway: to throw away their minds and futures so as to underwrite careers in the education bureaucracy. The bureaucracy is terrified that competition between public and private schools would undermine that reflexive, unthinking support to which the publics believe themselves entitled. Accordingly, that competition must be suppressed. There can't even be pilot programs. Such programs might get the customers to comparing value, as in a supermarket or department store. Publicly, the bureaucrats adduce at least two reasons not to have vouchers: 1. They drain resources from the public schools. But why shouldn't they, whenever and wherever the resources that public schools deploy are poorly utilized? The bureaucrats posit in effect the virtuousness of public schooling whether such schooling produces illiterates or geniuses. 2. Ah, but the First Amendment! Below the Wall of Church-State Separation the bureaucrats hunker down. Vouchers used at religious schools would weaken the Wall: possibly cause it to crumble (increasing, as Justice John Paul Stevens put it, "the risk of religious strife" and the weakening of our democratic structures). Not according to the Supreme Court majority that rejected precisely this argument. To judge from reaction to the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals' vote to swat down the Pledge of Allegiance, Americans in general aren't backing arguments such as strict religious separationists trot out. The great service the 9th Circuit wackos perform (they will be reversed in due course) is that of demonstrating just how brainless is the contention that America must keep God strictly under wraps. The purpose of vouchers isn't to put innocent schoolchildren in the way of proselytization by this team of evangelists or that one; it is to offer them better educational alternatives -- just as the purpose of the Pledge isn't to enforce some arbitrary religious creed but rather to acknowledge the undeniable religious sentiments of the vast majority of Americans. Teachers and principals are supposed to be smart people. Some apparently fall a bit short -- at least when discussing questions like the reform of their own profession and its practices. They should prepare to hone their arguments for the struggle ahead. Not everybody is going to let off Mr. Sanchez and his sort as lightly as did the Texas school administrators.