It’s interesting how Democrats and Republicans can often use the same arguments for very different purposes. For example, Democrats appeal to the value of choice when wanting to keep abortion a legal option for women. Republicans reject this argument by wanting to ban the practice on moral grounds. At the same time, Republicans call for choice when it comes to education, while Democrats claim the moral ground that choice for some damages the overall quality of education for all.
With a new legislative session on the horizon, Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick has vowed again to make school choice a priority. Rather than calling his plan “private school vouchers,” he refers to them under the euphemism: ESAs, or educational savings accounts. His agenda was narrowly defeated last session by a Texas House coalition of urban Democrats and rural Republicans, who banned together to save public education in Texas, which serves 90 percent of our students. For rural Texans, public schools play an important role in local employment and bond the entire community around weekend football games and other events. Few private schools serve as options in these remote areas. For urban and suburban Texans, though charter and private schools surround as options, the motives of those calling for choice, as well as the unintended negative fallout, raise concerns. In the end, the decision is a moral one.
Often, choice proponents will compare public education to a bloated bureaucracy that serves adults and not children. They argue that by applying the capitalist ideals of competition, public education will improve in order to win back students and their families. President-elect Donald Trump’s nominee for the Department of Education, billionaire Betsy DeVos, has made a career of fighting public schools by promoting charters, vouchers, cyber education and home schools.
One must ask about the motive for the school choice movement. Public education in this nation is an operation costing about $600 billion annually. Do these private, charter, cyber and home schools want to open their arms to public school students in a gesture of inclusion, or are they after the money? The amount allotted for private vouchers is almost always less than the private school tuition, so which families will be able to make up the difference? Will private schools relax admission requirements that make their schools exclusive, or will they drop them to be accessible for all? Furthermore, home schools currently run under zero accountability. What is to prevent a home-schooling parent from taking the voucher money and using it to buy a new computer for the family?
And then there are the repercussions. Every dollar taken from public schools and given to a charter, private, home or cyber school burdens the operational costs for public schools. In addition, with government money comes government accountability. Do all these private and religious schools, hoping for vouchers, want to submit their students to the battery of STAAR tests as well as the A-F grading scores that public schools must undergo? When the state is still spending $339 less per pupil than before the draconian budget cuts in 2011, won’t public schools suffer further from siphoned funds?
Let’s look at the data. Most proponents of school choice point to a study which shows that parents whose children participate in the DC Opportunity Scholars Program, which provides vouchers, are more satisfied with their children’s school than the parents whose children did not receive a voucher. Proponents don’t bring up hard data like test scores because the data is not compelling. In fact, data from Milwaukee, which has had a school voucher program in place for 25 years, shows no difference between achievement on state test scores between students who received vouchers and those who remained in public schools.
Still, the main argument against school choice is moral. While it’s fine in business and sports to compete, competition by its very nature means winners and losers. Who is willing to assign certain children as losers? If those with the interest, extra funds and transportation can choose another option for schooling, what happens to the many children who don’t have that support? Who will advocate for the homeless, those with incarcerated parents, those in foster homes? As a society, are we comfortable in ignoring these children for the good of the few?
Years ago, Ursula LeGuin wrote a beautiful tale called “The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas.” Omelas is a utopia of eternal happiness and comfort for its people, but the entire community’s well-being is dependent on one suffering, alienated child, huddled and hidden below. Is it moral for a society to follow John Stuart Mill’s utilitarianism — the good of the many justifies the suffering of the few? Or do we as a society owe it to ourselves and to our deepest values to ensure a quality education for every child in our state?
The Community Schools program, which offers an array of in-school services to disadvantaged students and their families, serves as a hopeful model of reform that leaves no child behind. Do we save a few and condemn the many — or do we pursue programs to improve our schools that work to uplift all children?
Editors note: Updated to show correct figure for the cost of education in this country.
Stevenson is an Austin educator.