Saturday, January 15, 2005

Old Stuff -- School Choice

Educating Mikey
School Choice in Maryland
Response to Baltimore Sun Editorial

The Baltimore Sun on Friday (2-22-02) devoted a considerable amount of ink agonizing over the fate of Cleveland's voucher program now in the hands of the U.S. Supreme Court. The Sun editorial was obviously the written fitfulness of a divided editorial board, making arguments for and against the Ohio brand of school choice as a possible model for Maryland's urban public school failures.

I nearly choked on my pre-packaged tuna-fish salad sandwich when I read these lines after a paragraph in which the editors proudly display their grasp of the school choice concept: "It sounds great, even liberating. And several cities are experimenting with choice programs - mostly involving vouchers - that have produced at least some success in improving the educational options for impoverished families."

All of a sudden now "'s worth looking more closely at the promise and pitfalls associated with the whole idea of choice." The whole idea has been fighting for this chance for 20 years, but only now, while school choice teeters on the brink is the Sun taken with idea of giving the issue a fair shake in the press.

Then another heart-stopper: "The upside of educational choice is pretty clear." Again, without qualification (though using the term "upside" suggests there is a political agenda). It was enough to compel me to check the paper's mast to confirm that I was indeed reading The Baltimore Sun. You see, I also subscribe to the Wall Street Journal (thanks, Mom and Dad) and it is was just possible that I was reading the Journal's editorial.

And, probably for the first time in mainstream American media, it was disclosed that "...the strongest proponents of choice are, in fact, African-American parents whose children are stuck in awful public schools that dot the urban landscape." I was tempted to call the police. Surely the Sun's editorial board would not, of its own free will, go on challenging the public school teachers union orthodoxy for quite nearly half of the editorial. Obviously the paper's top management had been kidnapped by religious right-wing, gun freaks and forced to write fairly about school choice.

The downside? The vouchers are a sham. They don't cover the full cost of private school tuition not to mention uniforms, transportation, books and extracurricular aspects of "school life." Ah, that's more like it. The Sun does, in fact, know on which side its bread is buttered. And in the three sentences it took to make this point it reveals that it doesn't fully understand "the whole idea" of school choice.

The idea is to gradually introduce the concept by providing for vouchers and charter schools within the state education budget and laws. This first step is anathema to teacher-union-run state governments such as ours because it is an admission that their more-money-smaller-classes model has failed. Allowing this to happen in Maryland would be another failure of public schools, that of union money and demagoguery. This aspect of the debate should not be missed in the Sun's closer look (I'll give them the benefit of the doubt for now but you'll forgive me for thinking that O.J. Simpson will find the real killers before we see ink on this).

The whole idea is to NOT replace one government-union jobs program with another. That is why the vouchers do not cover all the costs associated with private schools. The idea is to make that option MORE affordable for those who are willing to sacrifice for the future prosperity of the children they have brought into this world. And as the Journal, er Sun admits nearly every single parent to whom this chance is offered is willing and eager to do so. If uniforms are required they will get them, some how. If they have to rise extra early to walk or drive them to school everyday, they will. Perhaps this sacrifice is the "parental involvement" catalyst missing from the urban public school system that makes private and parochial schools work.

But after the cream of the public school student body is skimmed, what, the Sun wonders will be left for the poorest? More money and smaller classes? Too obvious. The Sun swerves to avoid that but falls into a ditch in assuming poorest are either too poor to teach or are too "unsophisticated" to recognize a good thing when it falls in their lap (can't wait for Gregory Kane's column on that one). This issue has the interesting if unintended consequence of abandoning the rich-poor class warfare in favor of the poor-poorest variety.

Still looking for the downside? Wait here are some more facts. "Vouchers won't bring more qualified teachers to public schools." Just a moment here. Does this mean taxpayers have been shelling out union scale for unqualified teachers? Perhaps we should identify the unqualified teachers and replace them? Swerve, skid. Then there is the "more money" argument for books, materials and maintenance. Given the ever-expanding nature of non-national-defense government programs, it stands to reason that a constant if not growing education budget will be available for a shrinking student body. That sounds like more money to me. How that money is spent is of course up to the teachers union. And finally, vouchers "won't extend the social safety net that is stretched too thin in public schools to meet the needs of the kids who attend." I will respond this as soon as someone tells me what it means.

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