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Debate Club

Are school vouchers the next great civil rights issue?

Clint Bolick and Laura Underkuffler debate.

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Fifty years ago, Brown v. Board of Education promised desegregation "with all deliberate speed." But according to the U.S. Department of Education, the benefits for minority students from that landmark ruling fall short of expectations. In 2003, just over half of black and Hispanic high school students graduated compared to 72 percent of white students.

One potential solution to the racial disparity is school vouchers. Advocates say vouchers increase graduation rates and empower minority students. Critics suggest that the program's results are less clear and, because vouchers are often used at parochial schools, violate the separation of church and state. Would vouchers help fulfill the promise of Brown?

Clint Bolick is President and General Counsel for the Alliance for School Choice. Laura Underkuffler is Professor at Duke Law School.

Bolick: 6/13/05, 09:22 AM

I am agnostic about the No Child Left Behind Act (NLCB), but one salient feature of the law makes it clear why we must go beyond public schools to achieve the goals of public education. Under NCLB, children in failing public schools are entitled to transfer to non-failing public schools within the district. Trouble is, in virtually every large urban school district, there are tens of thousands of schoolchildren in failing schools, and few if any seats available in non-failing schools. In Los Angeles, for instance, there are 225,000 children in failing public schools eligible to transfer—and zero seats available in better-performing public schools.

So what are we going to do for those children? Any response other than school choice means consigning millions of low-income children to abysmal schools.

School choice, as I use the term, means including private schools among the array of options available to children who are economically disadvantaged, physically disabled, or trapped in failing schools. Most school choice programs require participating private schools to enroll children by random selection and to accept the amount of the publicly funded scholarship as full payment of tuition. You can see a complete list of school choice programs and their characteristics—along with the features that we recommend—on my organization's website.

School choice gives disadvantaged families some of the clout that middle- and upper-income families have, through the power to exit the system. School choice provides an educational life preserver for children who desperately need it, and creates a competitive incentive for public schools to improve. Harvard's Caroline Hoxby has found that wherever public schools are subjected to meaningful competition, they improve.

That has happened in Florida, where children in failing schools are offered scholarships to attend better-performing public schools or private schools. Only about 750 kids statewide have transferred to private schools, but their footsteps have reverberated across the state. Schools faced with failing grades—and the prospect of vouchers—are adopting reforms that they long have resisted, such as spending more money in the classroom rather than the bureaucracy, hiring tutors for failing students, moving to year-round schools, etc. The result has been dramatic academic improvement, especially among minority schoolchildren. The racial academic gap is narrowing in Florida like nowhere else.

Unfortunately, there are many people who have a vested interest in preserving the status quo—or in making it even worse. Administrators, university schools of education, unions, and others tenaciously resist school choice. The "reforms" they suggest always involve more money or more jobs—but never greater parental choice.

How can anyone who cares about education oppose more choices and greater parental autonomy? Certainly, choice works in our post-secondary educational system, which is the world's envy. Students can use their public aid in public or private colleges—and all are better off for it. The evidence shows it works at the K-12 level, too.

School choice is not an either-or proposition. Often, school choice programs, as in Milwaukee and Florida, are accompanied by massive increases in public school money. Choice fits well with other types of systemic public school reform, such as greater accountability, charter schools, etc. But without choice, the system lacks the incentive to focus on the needs of children, especially low-income students, rather than the special interest groups that have run roughshod over public education for decades.

As an attorney, I ought to add that the constitutionality of school choice was definitively resolved in 2002 by the U.S. Supreme Court in Zelman v. Simmons-Harris. The court reasoned that so long as religious schools are only one of various options, and no public money is spent in religious schools except at the direction of parents, it does not violate the prohibition against establishment of religion.

How could the court have ruled otherwise, given its sacred promise in Brown nearly a half-century earlier that all children are entitled to equal educational opportunities? The following year in Brown II, the court admonished that promise should be fulfilled "with all deliberate speed." We have lost large portions of three generations since then. We have a moral obligation to enlist every tool at our disposal to make good on the promise.

All of my children always have attended traditional public schools (unlike the overwhelming majority of folks I've debated on the subject). But if I were poor, I would want to know I could find a school where my children were safe, where they were held to high standards, where they would acquire the tools necessary to succeed in our society, and where the odds were that they would graduate. We owe all children that—especially those who need education desperately to escape conditions of poverty. The bottom line is that those of us who care about public education should care less about where a child is educated, and more about whether a child is educated. That's what school choice is all about.

Underkuffler: 6/13/05, 04:24 PM
I understand the arguments for "choice" in education. Who can be against "choice"? Who can be against "greater parental autonomy"? Asking such questions is like asking who is against freedom.

The problem is that "choice" and "autonomy" are too simplistic to answer the hard questions that choice advocates' proposals raise. Nobody is against choice, as an isolated ideal. The problem is that when we are talking about societal plans and societal payment for the education of children, we are dealing with more.

I agree that public schools in some places are struggling and, despite the best efforts of teachers, are failing some students. I agree that something must be done, and our efforts must be more aggressive than in the past. What I don't endorse is the idea of reducing the system of public education to simply a marketplace for vouchers.

Let's be very clear about what we are talking about here. Vouchers are public money, used for education of children as chosen (exclusively) by parents. (The fiction that this money is not really "public", because it is "spent by parents" is, to my mind, just that—a fiction.) In the view of choice advocates, if we are true to choice, we (members of the public) should allow parents to make their own decisions about the schools that this public money will fund.

What does this mean? When we think about vouchers being used in private schools, we tend to assume that the private schools are ones with which we, as a society, are comfortable. With that idea in mind, there seem to be few reasons to restrict parental choice. However, we cannot assume that only those schools will seek public voucher funding. What if the private school chosen is one that reflects the teachings of a religious "cult", or that teaches racial hatred, or the inferiority of girls and women, or the denial of civil rights on the basis of sexual orientation, or other values that are at odds with the fundamental principles of our society? The limitation often cited by choice advocates—that the school be required to accept all comers—will not solve the problems that such schools present. The issue is far more fundamental: do we want our tax dollars to fund such schools?

We could say no—that such schools should be excluded, on the basis of the content of what they teach. We might be able to do this if the schools are completely secular in nature (although, of course, content-based exclusion contradicts the ideal of parental choice). However, if the schools are religious in nature, exclusion would be far more difficult. Exclusion which turns on the nature of the sponsoring institution's religious beliefs would undoubtedly contradict the Constitution's guarantees of free religious practice and equality of all religious sects.

We might think that these problems are far-fetched—that the chance of public voucher funding of schools with which we, as a society, are uncomfortable is low. However, on this we must think again. For instance, governments in the United Kingdom and Europe, which have funded religious schools for years, are now faced with the funding of religious schools whose beliefs are highly controversial—leading to calls for those governments to cease the business of religious school funding altogether.

My point is this. Making "parental choice" the sole criterion for use of public dollars for education is not a costless and completely benign idea. Education—particularly on the primary and secondary levels—is important; it is something in which we, as a society, are necessarily involved. In addition, when the use of public money is at stake, what that money funds is also of unavoidable societal importance. One person's "autonomous use of voucher money" is another person's (taxpayer's) violation of fundamental values and beliefs. Let's afford educational choice when it can be afforded without these violations—for instance, in the allowance (when a public school fails) of free choice among public schools, including inter-district transfers and charter schools. However, let's not use "choice" as something that legitimates the denial of the public interest in the nature and content of primary and secondary education.

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Bolick: 6/14/05, 09:30 AM
The issues have focused pretty quickly. You and I agree that public schools are in crisis, that we must do something, and that opposing parental choice in education is like being against freedom. So far, so good!

But, you say, we cannot add private schools to the array of choices because of the hypothetical possibility that there may be "cult" schools. We now have about 80,000 children attending private schools in targeted school choice programs. So far, no covens, no Posse Comitatus, not even any Rush Limbaugh schools. Just plenty of kids learning in safe environments chosen by their parents. Many of those children previously were consigned to schools where the dangers were anything but hypothetical.

Society expresses itself through democratic processes, and so far those processes have produced school choice programs that achieve a balance between parental choice and mainstream educational objectives. Most states, for instance, require all private schools to adhere to a sequential program of core academic instruction. The Florida program forbids schools from requiring participation in religious activities. Cleveland's excludes schools that advocate racial hatred.

Within those boundaries, we should applaud diversity. I am not Catholic, but if I were a low-income parent in Anacostia, I would accept a scholarship to send my child to a Catholic school in a heartbeat (indeed, thousands of non-Catholic D.C. parents have done exactly that). A few years ago I visited the Marcus Garvey Academy in south-central Los Angeles. The school teaches an Afro-centric curriculum. I'm not sure I would agree with the thrust of some of the History lessons. But the children—most of them African-American schoolchildren from the toughest neighborhoods in L.A.—were learning algebra, English, reading, and other core subjects in the earliest grades. As a taxpayer, as a citizen, it is that core education that I care about. Beyond that, in a free society, it is parents who should make judgments about the values their children learn.

Indeed, many parents are concerned about the values taught in public schools. Whether or not one agrees with those objections, again, it seems that parents ought to be able to choose. At the post-secondary level, students are free to use their aid at public, private, or religious schools. Your school, Duke University, probably couldn't survive if students could not use Pell Grants, the G.I. Bill, and other public funds to attend. I'll bet if we looked over Duke's course catalogs over the years, we'd find some courses that would not win any societal popularity contests. That's fine: the point is that it's the students who choose where to spend the aid. Society has decreed in enacting such aid programs that any education is better than no education, and that individual autonomy over where to spend the money is better than government compulsion.

So too with K-12 education. For parents who are following this debate, I ask: Who knows best and cares most about your children, you or someone else? Even though I don't know you, I'm willing to bet the answer is you. Public policy ought to reflect the assumption that parents will act in their children's best interests; and indeed, the tradition of American law embeds that premise.

School choice is one part—but an essential part—in fixing a system that has too few good public schools for the children who need them most. That reality trumps hypotheticals—especially those that can be addressed through careful legislative drafting. For children in New York, Chicago, Detroit, Los Angeles, and elsewhere who desperately need options, the remote prospect that someone, somewhere will set up a cult school matters little when there is a good Catholic or Montessori school across the street that they can't afford.

Underkuffler: 6/14/05, 05:29 PM
The heart of your remarks is the idea that we should just forget about all of the "hypothetical" dangers and divisiveness that public funding of private (particularly private religious) schools creates and simply put our faith in parental choice.

Ignoring dangers is justified, you argue, because there are several voucher programs out there that haven't yet encountered the funding of "problem" schools (at least as far as we know). The public should simply abdicate responsibility on the question of funding religious schools, or values, or what-have-you, and leave decisions about
the kinds of schools funded and the values taught in those schools to parental choice.

The idea that government should abandon concern about the content of elementary and secondary education, and fund all comers, has been around for a long time. For just as long, the citizens of this country have overwhelmingly rejected this idea. They have rejected this idea in the form of state constitutional bans on the funding of religious schools (recently reconsidered, and upheld, by votes or their
representatives in California, Florida, Michigan, New York, and Washington state), and in the rejection of voucher plans by voters. Indeed, after the Zelman case was decided, voucher advocates predicted the enactment of an avalanche of voucher plans throughout the country. This hasn't happened. It hasn't happened because the dangers presented by such plans aren't "hypothetical" to voters—they are real.

You argue that the fears of voters are unfounded, citing the ban on the teaching of racial hatred in the Cleveland voucher plan. This is fine as far as it goes. But how far does it go? The problems involved in interpreting and enforcing such a ban are obvious. (What is "racial hatred"? Does it include "racial inferiority" and other ideas?) Even more telling is what this ban does not include. It does not attempt to prohibit the teaching of religious intolerance, or the teaching of the subordination of women, or the teaching of the denial of gay rights.

This is not because the drafters believed these to be less likely than racial hatred; it is because they were obviously more likely and, if taught by claimed religious schools, would be—under existing religious guarantees—virtually impossible for the state to proscribe.

Those who claim that state funding of any school—including religious schools—is no problem should consider the experience of public funding of religious schools in England and Europe. For many years, these countries have funded religious education. In the spring of 2001, I was contacted by Professor Harry Judge of Oxford University about a project undertaken by the Oxford Review of Education. A special issue, with contributions from scholars throughout the United Kingdom, would deal with what has become an extremely divisive social and political issue: taxpayer funding of religious schools.

It seems that the pacific ideal of taxpayer funding of religious schools in these countries is, in fact, crumbling in the face of increasing religious diversity. In these countries there has been, for instance, fast growth of Islamic communities, including those of a traditional or fundamentalist nature. These communities, quite understandably, now demand the equal public funding of their schools. With these demands has come bitter and divisive controversy. Although the citizens of these countries were very willing to publicly fund the schools of the religions with which they felt comfortable, they are not prepared to publicly fund religious schools that advance views that the majority finds alien, disturbing, or anti-assimilationist. As the result of the public crisis that this issue has caused, the attitudes of citizens—as assessed by a former chairman of the United Kingdom's Commission for Racial Equality—"appear to be hardening and intolerance to differences is growing." In the words of Professor Judge, "[c]onfidence in the extension of faith-based schools in England, at least, seems to be based on the unspoken assumption that most of the new state funding will go to the 'mainstream' Christian groups. It does not appear that those promoting such developments have yet given a great deal of thought to the broad implication of a significantly wider extension of such financial support, including support for groups which have not yet asserted themselves."

These dangers are real, In the United States, we are not immune from these conflicts. To the extent that we have achieved religious tolerance, it is because we have not forced the funding of religious practices and religious schools as a public issue. The idea that we, as a society, could simply close our eyes to these issues is unrealistic. We care too much about the elementary and secondary education of children, and we have too great a stake in publicly funded schools.

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Bolick: 6/15/05, 08:46 AM
Certainly you are not alone in these hypothetical concerns—they were voiced in equally histrionic terms by four members of the Supreme Court in their Zelman dissent, warning that if the Cleveland program was upheld, we would experience the type of religious strife we see in Northern Ireland, Bosnia, etc.

Eerily, even though the program was upheld, somehow the streets of Cleveland are quiet. And in Milwaukee and our nation's capital as well. Maybe it is because children are inside good schools, learning not only how to read and write, but about civic values—whether the schools they are in are secular, Catholic, Jewish, Christian, or even Muslim.

Likewise, you fail to address the much larger choice system in higher education. Students may use Pell Grants, the G.I. Bill, and other forms of college aid at virtually any school. Overtly racist schools like Bob Jones University are excluded. But every other type of religious school is included, even if they teach things that offend some people, whether it is the sins of capitalism or the sins of homosexuality. Amazingly, still no rioting in the streets. That is because America is a pluralistic society that values the rich diversity of religious beliefs (or lack thereof). And a key feature of that pluralism and tolerance is individual choice: government is not subsidizing religious institutions; rather, it is placing resources at the disposal of individuals who may direct them as they see fit. Because everyone has that right, few object to how others exercise that freedom.

What is far more frightening than hypothetical, unrealized concerns about religious strife is the all-too-real strife that occurs when children are consigned to failing schools. Nationwide, only about half of all black and Hispanic children graduate from high school. Among young black men who failed to graduate, about 28 percent are in jail today. When the Cleveland voucher program was created, a child in the Cleveland Public Schools had roughly a 1 in 14 chance of graduating on time with senior-level proficiency; the same child had slightly more than a 1 in 14 chance of being a victim of crime inside the public schools, each year.

Today, in the Milwaukee Parental Choice Program, roughly two-thirds of all students graduate from high school, compared to barely more than one-third in the public schools. Both the Milwaukee and Cleveland school districts are responding well to competition and improving—and as I have previously recounted, minority academic progress in Florida public schools in response to school choice is remarkable.

What school choice does is to expand the definition of public education. The goals of public education are met if a child learns to read and write, even if the educational setting happens to be a private school, a religious school, or a home school. They are not met if a child is unsafe or illiterate, even if the setting happens to be a public school.

When it comes to religion, I am a nonbeliever. When I walk the hallways of an inner-city Catholic school, however, I see something that almost makes me want to convert: I see children who have been written off by the system learning. The fact that the children may be using tax dollars to learn in the shadow of a crucifix does not impel me to anti-religious hysteria; the reality of those children learning anywhere makes me want to cheer. Religious schools, especially in inner cities, are doing the job of public education: they are keeping kids safe, they are holding them to high standards, they are giving them the skills they need to go on to college or productive livelihoods. Not a bad investment for a few thousand dollars a year.

Here in America, people do not fear religion, and they certainly don't fear parental choice, except perhaps in academia. It is interesting that choice initiatives have been defeated when consigned to the realm of sky-is-falling hypotheticals—but that the special interest groups never have attempted to repeal an actual, functioning school choice program. Indeed, such programs have steadily grown as reality makes people realize that there is nothing to fear from choice in education. There is a great deal to fear, however, in failing to take action to make all possible educational options available to schoolchildren who need them desperately.

Underkuffler: 6/15/05, 04:26 PM
Let's stop and consider an argument that you've raised: that under voucher plans, government is not subsidizing religious institutions—rather, it is placing resources at the disposal of individuals who may direct them as they see fit. This is what I call the "laundering" argument, and it echoes what the Supreme Court majority held in Zelman. Zelman held that funding of religious schools with taxpayer money through voucher programs is ok because (in the majority's view) the passage of the money through parents' hands means that this is not "state funding" at all.

I find this argument completely unconvincing. Indeed, the Supreme Court found it unconvincing in another case, Norwood v. Harrison, which dealt with state aid to racially discriminatory private schools. Aid was channeled to the parents of children who attended all-white private academies, to circumvent prohibitions on direct public funding of such schools. Proponents argued that this plan did not involve prohibited "state funding" because parental choice (not the state) determined the aid ultimately received by schools. The Supreme Court rejected this argument, and chose instead to see the substance of the program for what it was.

To my mind, the Court's view in Norwood is far more sensible than its Zelman rationale. The idea that state voucher programs involve individual (not state) funding begs reality when the individual decisions to forward voucher money to private schools are entirely anticipated and authorized actions which accomplish the goal—the public funding of (public and private) education—that the state has previously identified.

Perhaps even more to the point, states remain free to reject the Zelman fiction, and to conclude that vouchers are "state funding" as far as they (and the public) are concerned. In Locke v. Davey, very recently decided, the Supreme Court held exactly that. In Locke, it was held that although the federal Establishment Clause does not (under Zelman) prohibit voucher programs, states are free to bar them under their own anti-establishment guarantees.

And why might states wish to do that? You argue that we live in a tolerant, pluralistic society that values the diversity of all religious beliefs. I believe that we have achieved some degree of tolerance—but that this tolerance is thinner and more fragile than we might wish to believe.

Take, for instance, a recent episode in North Carolina. In the summer of 2002, in a stated effort to "stimulate discussion and critical thinking around a current topic," incoming students to the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill were directed to read Approaching the Qur'an: The Early Revelations, a book translated and introduced by a Haverford College professor. News reports recount the controversy. When the assignment of this book was publicly discovered, a furor followed. The choice of the book was denounced by a campus activist as offensive on the ground that this country was founded on the principles of Christianity, not the Qur'an. A lawsuit was filed in federal court against the University, alleging that the University was promoting Islam and encouraging students' conversion. As a result of the book's assignment, the North Carolina House Appropriations Committee voted 62-10 to bar funding for the University's summer reading program during a state budget hearing. Counsel for the plaintiffs in the federal lawsuit stated that "[w]e think that what we've uncovered so far is just the tip of the iceberg." Whatever one might think of the merits of such controversies, it is impossible to dismiss the dangers of religious divisiveness in this country as mere "histrionics."

To meet the needs of students in failing elementary and secondary schools, we don't need to breach these walls and court these dangers. We don't need to reduce elementary and secondary education to a "private marketplace" where anything goes and in which we, as a society, have no interest. We can use accountability measures for public schools, and we can implement true choice among public schools (including non-district schools), to break logjams in reform and meet the needs of all students.

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Bolick: 6/16/05, 09:13 AM
Again, you are not alone in your sentiments. In the Cleveland program, the union challenging the school choice program described the low-income parents using vouchers as "inconsequential conduits" in the laundering of money for religious schools. It is an assertion as patronizing as it is untrue. In a school choice program, for the first time, low-income parents no longer are inconsequential. They and their children are now the focus of a school system that has ignored them. And they have the system's attention because, at last, they have power—the power to determine where their children's education funds are spent.

First, from a procedural standpoint, no school has any entitlement to any public funds in a school choice program. In some school choice programs, first a public school must fail in order to trigger vouchers. In all choice programs, a parent must determine that her children are better off outside the public schools. Often they leave special services behind and have to transport their children a considerable distance. Then, the parent must decide which school to choose. If this is a money laundering scheme, it is the most cumbersome one ever devised—because there is no assurance about where, or even if, funds will end up.

I'm sorry if I sound like a broken record, but you have refused to engage my point that the millions of dollars in K-12 school choice funds pale in comparison to the billions of dollars in post-secondary school choice funds. Most private and religious universities like Duke would have to close their doors if they were excluded from Pell Grants, the G.I. Bill, and other voucher-style funds. Is your salary as a Duke law professor the result of money laundering? Lest you experience on onrush of guilt, I assure you I don't see it that way. Because, once again, the use of such public funds at Duke University, or at Brigham Young University, or at Bruce Guadaloupe School in Milwaukee, is the result of private, genuinely independent choices. Food stamps, Medicare, charitable tax deductions, subsidized mortgages—it's all the same type of neutral aid, and in our free society we let individuals choose where to use it, even in religious institutions. Everywhere, that is, except in K-12 education.

As you can probably tell, I'm not much moved by the North Carolina example you used about objections to a textbook. If avoidance of conflict was the proper touchstone for public policy, we never would have had the civil rights revolution; that was a conflagration, literally. But thankfully our courts and national leaders didn't say, "Can't we all just get along? Let's just keep the current system, and avoid all this conflict." Today, those who block the doors to opportunity—although this time they're keeping kids in rather than keeping them out—are unions and their allies. They wave the banner of separation of church and state; but of course, their real concern is protecting power and jobs. Those are the only folks who are hysterical about school choice. If they spent a fraction of the energy and resources that they expend opposing school choice on improving the quality of public schools, we wouldn't be having this debate.

What would you say to one of the millions of low-income parents for whom there are no good public school options? We've promised that we'll improve the schools, and we haven't succeeded yet, but we're sure it will happen sometime? Or, we understand your child desperately needs an education, but someone may get upset somewhere if the Golden Rule is posted on the blackboard, so we just can't allow that? The problem is that kids need a good education today. Not ten years from now; today. The loss of educational opportunities is often irreparable. In a nation grounded on the moral commitment to equal educational opportunities, it seems to me perverse that we would not allow a child whose public schools have failed to have access a good school, just because it is religious.

A final note on Locke v. Davey—I think a close reading would reveal that the Court was very careful to limit its holding to permit states to discriminate in funding only against students studying for the ministry. It was not a broad ruling allowing discrimination against the inclusion of religious schools in neutral aid programs. Indeed, the Court's insistence on allowing the participation of religious clubs in public schools suggests that in general, the nondiscrimination principle is alive and well. That is a principle to which I happily subscribe.

Underkuffler: 6/16/05, 02:58 PM
If we could limit discussion to low-income students who are attending failing schools, and who want to attend schools that we all agree do a fantastic job, such as inner-city parochial schools, the questions would be lot easier, philosophically at least. The problem is that in law, equality means equality. We cannot pick and choose among recipient schools in this way.

Most often, this is not—in any event—what voucher proponents have in mind. Although they spend a lot of time talking about low-income students, their proposals are almost always rooted in visions that are far broader and deeper than this. Low-income children in failing public schools are, for them, just the first step in a larger program. In the end, their visions mandate the complete dismantling of the idea of public education, to be replaced by a market in vouchers.

Let's look at a more positive question—the question of alternatives. There is no doubt, in my mind, but that we need to think strongly, innovatively, and creatively to change assumptions about public education and to afford special services and choice to parents if those assumptions fail to change. The ideas of school accountability through testing, with state-paid tutoring if objective measures of student achievement show failure, are steps in the right direction. However, what else might be done to break the logjam in public education reform?

Let's take, for instance, the system of true public school choice that has been adopted state-wide in Minnesota for all students. Minnesota was one of the first states in the country to implement comprehensive school choice legislation which allows parents and children to choose to attend any public school district in the state.

Under Minnesota's "Open Enrollment Public Schools Plan," all students have the opportunity to apply for enrollment in any public school, including those in districts outside of the district in which they live. All school districts must cooperate with this state-wide program. State education funds that would have gone to the resident school district follow the student to the chosen school district. Parents are asked to transport their children to a bus stop within the chosen district, where the students then receive regular transportation services. If the student is from low-income family, all transportation costs incurred by parents in transporting their children to the chosen district are paid by the state.

No tuition of any sort is charged to students from lower-resource districts who choose higher-resource districts. Students from lower-resource districts are treated as financial equals in every way. Last year, according to statistics from the Minnesota Department of Education, more than 30,000 Minnesota students chose and were afforded completely out-of-district schooling under the Open Enrollment plan.

This is an innovative and creative plan that works to undermine the assumption that residence boundaries must determine resources, schools, teachers, and opportunities. It fosters competition among public schools and creates incentives for reform. It challenges schools to meet the needs of their students. And it does this without divisive religious and cultural battles over public funding, and without dismantling the idea of the public school.

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Bolick: 6/17/05, 07:50 AM
I'm glad to hear you agree that inner-city parochial schools do a fantastic job. Too bad that dozens of them are closing this year because the churches can't afford to keep them open and low-income families can't afford the tuition, even if it is a fraction of what is spent on failing public schools.

You offer alternatives that sound nice in theory. Accountability is helping lift public school performance, albeit slowly, in some states. Trouble is, when parents find out their kids who are getting A's in school are actually failing, they don't blame the schools—they blame the standards. In Arizona and elsewhere, the standards are being diluted. Moreover, true accountability can't happen without customers being able to leave. Standards without consequences are not standards at all.

The idea of public school choice is terrific—I support it. Unfortunately, it won't solve the problem. In many cities, the round-trip to the suburbs would take hours. Separating children from their neighborhoods means separating parents from participation in their children's schools—which researchers agree is the most important factor in student achievement. There aren't enough good schools in the suburbs anyway; and the ugly political reality is that many suburban voters do not want inner-city children coming to their schools. Nor do inner-city parents want to send their children there: They want the same thing as all parents want, which is a good school in their own neighborhood. The fact that it may be religiously affiliated should not be a basis for denying it to children whose future may depend on it.

I'm glad you mentioned the Minnesota open choice system, which I applaud. Minnesota also provides income tax deductions for private school tuition. It happens that today a poll was released that found that even with widespread public school choice, Minnesotans favor vouchers for low-income children by a 3-1 margin. That is because low-income youngsters clustered in inner-city St. Paul and Minneapolis still do not have access to quality education.

Systemically, the inclusion of private schools is essential to true reform. Take the example of the post office. Remember when it was bloated, inefficient, unreliable, and unresponsive? I take it your suggestion would have been that if people didn't like their local post office, they should go to the one in the next town—where they would find an equally bloated, inefficient, unreliable, and unresponsive post office. When USPS was exposed to private sector competition, it was forced to improve. Today USPS is consumer-oriented and pretty reliable. Competition did not destroy it; it made the public system more efficient, while providing freedom of choice to consumers.

As John Chubb and Terry Moe demonstrated in their 1990 Brookings Institution classic, Politics, Markets & America's Schools, suburban public schools and inner-city private schools do a relatively good job—but inner-city public schools do not, in large part because low-income parents (unlike more affluent suburbanites and patrons of private schools) do not have the capacity to exit the system. As a result, inner-city public schools are responsive not to parents but to politicians and special-interest groups. School choice reverses that equation, and schools are compelled to improve in order to survive. Responding to such competition, public schools in Milwaukee, Cleveland, and Florida are doing just that.

The fact that public schools have improved everywhere that vouchers exist is the best answer to your sweeping and groundless assertion that school choice proponents are anti-public education. My own children have attended nothing but public K-12 schools, and I do not harbor a secret desire to do them harm. To me, the core of public education is learning. Schools are a means to the end, not an end in themselves. The focus of public education should be the children, not the "system."

There are folks who oppose public education, such as The Alliance for the Separation of School and State. Check out their website. They oppose vouchers, fiercely. They recognize that vouchers strengthen public education—and uncontroverted evidence supports that belief.

I await your final submission with baited breath to see if you can go an entire week without responding to my repeated challenge about how we can have a postsecondary education system characterized by transportable student aid and a flourishing private and public sector, while the same system in K-12 education would result in religious jihads and the demise of public schools.

Even more, I wish I could have had the pleasure of your company this evening. I attended a celebration of the first year of the District of Columbia voucher program. One girl who just completed her first year in a religious school wrote a moving poem about how she feels about her school and her future. A mom whose daughter is in a private secular school said she couldn't fathom what her little girl's fate would be in the D.C. public schools. Imagine that: low-income families actually celebrating their publicly funded education in the nation's capital. It would have been interesting to see how you would have explained to them why they should be forced to leave the only good schools to which they have ever had access.

To return to the original theme of this exchange, school choice is the civil rights issue of our era. Our generation has it within our power to make good, at last, on the promise of equal educational opportunities for all schoolchildren. Our nation's moral claim is staked in its doctrinal commitment to equal educational opportunities. We cannot let another generation pass without fulfilling that promise.

On behalf of the Alliance for School Choice and the families we serve, I thank Legal Affairs for the opportunity to participate in this forum, and all of those who have followed this exchange for their time and interest. As my favorite revolutionary and the earliest voucher advocate, Tom Paine, aptly said, "Tyranny, like hell, is not easily conquered. But we have this consolation: the harder the conflict, the more glorious the triumph." Please join us in this vital cause.

Underkuffler: 6/17/05, 12:15 PM
Let's clear the air of a few points that you've raised. First, you argue that accountability of public schools is meaningless, because standards are simply being diluted to meet "accountability"—and that there are no consequences for failing schools. Let me say this. Under the No Child Left Behind legislation, there are not only the imposition of external standards, but severe consequences for failing schools. Whatever the flaws of that legislation may be, the problems are not standards or consequences.

You also argue that the ability of children to attend other public schools, under open enrollment public schools plans, may be unrealistic. My guess is that there are good public schools far closer to far more students than there are private schools and private academies waiting and eager to take these children. We are not just talking about inner-city children who could benefit from true public school choice. We are talking about children in cities, working-class suburbs, rural areas, and in every town and county in America. For them, improvement in public schools and true public school choice would mean far more than the hypothetical ability to attend a nonexistent private school (which they could somehow afford with their voucher money).

You also fear that true public school choice is unrealistic, because many suburban voters don't want inner-city students coming to their schools. I am not sure what this means. If this is true, does this mean that we have to ghettoize these children in "their" neighborhoods—that this is their "choice"? This sounds like the voucher idea is founded on the acceptance of barriers—not true choice and educational opportunity.

In the end, I think that the core of our disagreement is captured by your view that "public education is learning"—and nothing more. Previously, you stated that as long as the academic subjects like math and reading are covered, you don't believe that "public education" should have any other concern over what is taught in publicly-funded schools. I think that this is, most fundamentally, where we part company.

Public education of elementary and secondary school students has been of intense public importance and public concern since the creation of public schools. The people in this country care about their public schools. They care about what public education means and they care about the teaching of public values. They care about civic responsibility, and the lessons in cultural, socio-economic, and religious tolerance that involving everyone from all walks of life creates.

Last Saturday night, I attended the High School graduation of my nephew from a public school in rural western Maine. The parents in the audience were from every part of that community. The graduating students, as listed in the program, were headed toward everything, including 4-year colleges, 2-year colleges, technical training, working in the forests, working in the service industries, and military service (of all categories, the last was the largest). These parents and teachers and students were proud of their school. They were proud of its achievements, and what it represented to this community. To them, and to voters all over this country, this is what public education means.

I believe that our efforts to create universal public education, which includes inculcation of our nation's values, have done more to create the unity and strength of our nation today than any other single factor. Let's not destroy this idea that has served us so well. Let's build on this strength and strive toward more equitable and even better public education.

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