This article is the second of a two-part series arguing that opponents of school choice programs must cast off their concerns and learn to love the voucher. Part 1 focused on legal issues. Part 2 focuses on vouchers as public policy.
The public education system in the United States is in need of fundamental reform, and that reform must include educational choice. Incorrigible schools have been failing to meet even basic educational standards for decades, and the only hope for students there is to escape to another school. Vouchers empower parents to fulfill their responsibility to direct their children’s development. Despite the bourgeois suspicion that low-income parents either do not value education or are ill-suited to make educational decisions for their children, this sentiment is undermined by massive crowds and backlogs of parents entering lotteries for spots in under-funded and inadequately scaled school choice programs across the country. When parents can choose where their kids go to school, they choose the school that best aids their children’s growth.
Considering how much money is spent on public education in this country, the results are abysmal. For instance, before Cleveland’s school district instituted its voucher program, many students were more likely to be victims of violent crime than they were to graduate on time at grade-level proficiency. Nationwide, barely two-thirds of students graduate from high school on-time, and the drop-out rates are skewed dramatically by race. The system has forsaken these children.
Voucher programs in the United States are nascent and rare, but studies of their effectiveness suggest they work. Many of the countries that outperform the United States in K-12 education rely on systems in which parents are able to choose between multiple educational options. For Americans, those options have been largely reserved for those wealthy enough to pay for private school tuition while paying thousands in taxes to fund ineffective public schools. Giving vouchers to all or most students would remedy that inequity and give more kids the ability to receive a world-class education.
A common worry among voucher critics is that they enable religious fundamentalists to further indoctrinate their children. Public schools, they argue, constitute an important exposure to the secular principles that underlie American civil society; removing children from secular public schools would deprive them of valuable socialization. Images of ‘holy war’ evangelicals and religious cults pervade this line of reasoning, but the risk of creating a nation of religio-zombies is greatly overblown. The irony in the criticism that vouchers foster religious extremism is that studies show a negative correlation between fundamentalism and educational attainment. Students are much better able to think for themselves when they can read above a fifth-grade level.
Voucher critics should save their bickering over whether it is good to have a religious moral education for a time when every child from every social class has the chance to read books and do basic arithmetic. As things stand today, students in public schools do not receive a decent education, and they will not until radical changes are implemented throughout the country. In the meantime, the sensible and compassionate option is to expand voucher programs to allow more parents to take charge of their children’s education.
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