During the Vietnam War, a military officer said one day that the only way to save a particular city was to destroy it.
The education voucher plan for low-income families, offered by William J. Bennett, U.S. secretary of education, makes a similar judgment about public schools. At the very least, Bennett wants to gamble that public schools would not be savaged by a plan whose avowed purpose is to save them by making them compete for students.
"At present," Bennett said, "our more affluent families do exercise choice by buying a home in a neighborhood of their choice, or by sending their children to private school. The poor do not now have that kind of choice." That much of what Bennett says is true. It is a condition that the federal government has tried to correct over two decades by giving school districts extra money to educate poor children.
Bennett would change that. Families with incomes below $14,000 a year could get vouchers worth an average of $600 a year to pay tuition at public, private or parochial schools. The proposal may well be unconstitutional, because it would blur the line separating church and state.
Money for vouchers would come from $3 billion a year that now goes to aid inner-city schools--money that is used to reduce class sizes, buy textbooks and provide other services. The program is designed to help overcome educational problems of children from homes where families must concentrate not on ideas but on simple survival.
The Los Angeles Unified School District receives $60.7 million of that money to enhance education for 223,915 students in 265 schools. In Orange County, two districts with large numbers of disadvantaged students are Santa Ana and Garden Grove. The Santa Ana district receives almost $3 million in federal money, and Garden Grove schools $2.8 million. San Diego city schools receive $10 million.
Even if the Reagan Administration plan is found to be constitutional, it borders on fraud. The Administration says that parents who are dissatisfied with their children's progress in their neighborhood schools should be able to enroll them elsewhere. But there aren't that many elsewheres, and private or parochial schools often are able to maintain high standards because they screen applicants closely.
The second element of fraud has to do with how much education a low-income family can buy with $600. In Southern California it would cover less than half a year's tuition at the least expensive college-preparatory schools and less than 10% at the most expensive.
Without critical examination, vouchers have a certain conceptual appeal. Who, after all, would deny poor youngsters access to the best possible schooling? But this plan would not come near to achieving that goal. It would simply siphon funds out of a program to enrich education for the poor, whose budget already is too small.
Just because parents don't earn much money doesn't mean that they are dumb. They and their friends in Congress, who must approve any substantive changes in the federal aid-to-education program, should recognize the proposed low-income voucher plan for what it really is: a phony offer that they can and should quickly refuse.