COMMENTARY | Fewer state and local political issues impassion voters like school vouchers. School vouchers, which are taxpayer-funded checks given to families to allow their children to attend non-public schools, have long been controversial. Proponents of school vouchers say they allow for parental choice in students’ education and are the only way for non-wealthy families to allow their kids “escape” public schools that are underperforming, run-down, or even dangerous. Critics of school vouchers say they de-fund and undermine community support for public education, are frequently mis-appropriated and mis-used, and go to schools that are far less regulated and accountable than traditional public schools.
The latest brouhaha in the perennial battle comes in the aftermath of a POLITICO report claiming that almost $1 billion from school vouchers in 14 U.S. states will go to schools that teach creationism and other non-mainstream curricula. Critics go so far as to claim that the rapid increase in school voucher programs nationwide is an organized political effort by the religious right to help indoctrinate more students with anti-science, pro-Bible religious fervor. They also accuse the religious right of using publicly-subsidized (via the vouchers) private schools as a sneaky substitute after losing court battles decades ago regarding the teaching of creationism and intelligent design in the public school classroom.
With America’s test scores eroding compared to other industrialized nations, critics complain, can we afford to allow our students to flee public schools, where they are taught established science, to pro-religious private schools with the help of taxpayer-funded vouchers?
I’m against the teaching of creationism in the classroom, but my opposition to school vouchers is more broad. I think school vouchers are dangerous and should be used sparingly. Overuse of school vouchers can destroy public schooling and cause gross overspending of tax dollars. Only in extreme circumstances should families be given money to send their kids away from local public schools.
Public schools should be supported by the community and by the state. Voucher programs allow this support to be circumvented elsewhere, harming students and teachers. By providing school vouchers as “escape pods” from public schools that are allegedly insufficient, the community is given a way to shirk their obligation to improve the public schools. As a result, they will not bother to try to fix problems with those schools.
Instead, they will grossly overspend to subsidize mass flight to new, expensive, underregulated private schools. Parents of students who get the vouchers will cheer and tout the voucher program. Students will be happy going to their shiny new classrooms. It makes for great photo ops, right? Politicians get to talk about “parental choice” and “investing in new capital” and “technology in the classroom.” They will get to speak somberly about “failing schools” and “failing our children.” They will ignore the financial cost of subsidizing overpriced private schools because – let’s face it – who can put a value on a child’s education?
Anyone who tries to argue the cost, and the burden to taxpayers now having to subsidize fancy new private schools and their highly-paid administrators, will be labeled “anti-child” and “anti-education,” dooming them to public scorn.
Meanwhile, the children who do not get to leave the public schools suffer as the community ignores those schools and pro-voucher politicians seek to erode their funding. Public school teachers and administrators risk losing their jobs. Sure, they can go work at the private schools…if they’re willing to take a pay cut and relinquish any job security. Over time, the quality of education will drastically decline as voucher-receiving private schools are filled mostly by young, inexperienced teachers desperate for cash and willing to teach anything, ranging from pseudoscience to pro-Biblical interpretations of every subject.
Public schools are often far from perfect. Many have huge problems. We need to fix these problems, not run away from them with our voucher programs. These programs, when overused, just teach people to run away from their problems, seeking greener pastures. We shouldn’t just be worried about voucher-receiving private schools teaching creationism – we should be worried about what starts to happen when we begin allowing the masses to flee our public schools.