The U.S. Supreme Court recently heard arguments in a school voucher case.
The case is being pushed by advocates of competition for local schools using a business model as guide. The theory behind vouchers is, give people choices. Make schools compete for students. Schools will have to improve or fail in a new education marketplace. Market options might range from attending other public schools, charter schools, private schools, religious schools, or home-schooling.
The voices to undo our public education system, established nearly two centuries ago, are still a minority. But they are persistent, and voucher advocates have mounted initiatives in most states.
We need to think long and hard before we make any drastic changes to public education. We need to recognize public education’s critical role in making our society what it is.
Think back to the incredible sense of shared American values in the immediate aftermath of the September 11 tragedy. The pictures of firefighters, police, stockbrokers, restaurant workers, and others who were killed touched everyone. People from all walks of life, all colors and ethnicities, joined in the knowledge that something important belonging to us as a country was under attack.
That “something” is what we stand for as a society — individual rights, freedom of speech, tolerance of differences — indeed, a feeling that we are part of something bigger than any one of us — and something incredibly precious. With all of our problems, the ideal of American society remains, in Lincoln’s words, the “last great hope of earth.”
Why do we feel this way? I would argue that our public schools are largely responsible. This is where we first came into contact with other people who were rich, poor, ethnic, smart, not so smart, friendly, tough — you know, a true slice of real life in that messy public experiment called “democracy.” And most of us have turned out much the better for it.
Consider what it may mean to radically alter this equation. If parents of the best and brightest pull their kids out of public schools to attend elite private prep schools, those left behind won’t get the positive influence of interacting with high achievers. Muslim parents might pull their kids to send them to fundamental Islamic religious schools. Is that really doing any good for either Islamic or non-Islamic kids? What if athletes all start gravitating toward one school because it has the best sports teams? Or history students flock to another school because it has the best history programs? Maybe this is OK for college, but for elementary and high school?
Are we only concerned about the values that individual parents hold for their individual kids? Or are we also concerned about the values that we hold in common as a society?
When we break down the democratic community that public schools represent, we lose a lot.
Today, more than ever, we need things that unite us — not divide us.
Vouchers would divide us. They are a bad idea.
This is Allen Gilbert.
–Allen Gilbert of Worcester is a writer and parent who is active in education issues.