A lifeline for poor kids in bad schools

Posted: Sep 18, 2000 12:00 AM
Opponents of Proposition 38, the initiative that would grant $4,000-a-year vouchers to K-12 students to attend private school, argue, "Let's fix our public schools, not abandon them." They care about institutions. The voucher people have a different take: Throw out a lifeline to students whom public schools have cheated out of a decent education. Opponents say that Proposition 38 won't spend a dime to improve public schools. I disagree: Those $4,000 vouchers represent competition, a sense of which is sorely needed in California public schools. Consider whole language, which teaches children to read by looking at words in their context in sentences, instead of sounding letters out phonetically. Thanks to whole language, California tied for last place with Louisiana in a 1994 national reading test. If school administrators thought parents might remove their children if they thought schools were using their kids as guinea pigs, many schools never would have inflicted whole language on helpless children. The same goes for new-new math, which eschews basic computational skills in favor of an emphasis on problem solving. With no evidence that new-new math would work for most students, and good reason to suspect it would not, many educrats scooped up expensive math curricula so quickly it seemed they were trying to beat more bad news about the trendy approach. If their jobs were on the line, they would have been more circumspect. Then there are schools with foul bath rooms, crumbling roofs or no lockers for students. Vouchers would pressure those schools to spruce up their buildings. Opponents argue that voucher schools wouldn't have to go through state financial audits. Big deal. It's not as if those audits stopped whole language, the hiring of teachers who couldn't pass a high-school level teacher test or bilingual programs that robbed students of English mastery. It is true that Proposition 38 will give money to parents who already send their children to private schools -- and that's not cheap. According to the nonpartisan Legislative Analyst, Prop. 38 could cost some $2 billion annually if 5 percent of students defect to private schools, but could save $700 million annually if 15 percent of students leave public schools. Proposition 38 has administrators painting public schools as underdogs because voucher schools can choose more accomplished students -- so can magnet schools -- and better behaved students. OK, but public schools will have twice as much money as voucher schools. If it's true, as educrats argue, that more spending is the key to better education, public schools should kick voucher butt. The Proposition 38 team understands that this measure is about expanding choice. Affluent and middle-class parents can afford either to pay for private school tuition or move to an area with good public schools. It's poor kids who lack options. Their parents can't afford to move or pay tuition. And public schools know a captive population when they see it. They can under-educate these kids with little negative consequence. Then, when poor minority kids don't get the same education as suburban kids, well, educators will support preferences in state university admissions -- anything but a ticket to a better private school. Foes also argue that voucher schools wouldn't be accountable -- as if public schools are. They ignore 38's requirement that voucher schools give nationally normed tests to voucher students. Parents would be able to compare their children's progress with that of others. Thus 38 foes put more faith in auditors than parents. As Brian Bennett of the Yes on 38 campaign put it, "Why is it at the end of the day the only people we refuse to trust are parents with low income?"