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COMMENTARY : Crisis in Education Prompts a Rethinking of School Voucher Plan

September 11, 1993|ABIGAIL MCCARTHY | RELIGIOUS NEWS SERVICE; McCarthy is a writer and lecturer who lives in Washington. and

For the first six years after my graduation from college, I was a teacher in a small-town public high school. They were memorable and, in the main, happy years. As I write in early September, I am swept with a wave of nostalgia for the sense of beginning anew and for the things that went with that sense--clean blackboards, new text- and workbooks, the chatter and clatter of students in the halls, the banging of locker doors.

Because of those memories I am doubly sad to know that the opening of school for so many today is drastically different. In some schools, teachers go to school in fear of their lives, and for many students, entering the buildings through metal detectors, school is little more than a temporary haven from the violence endemic beyond the walls.

Today the public schools are in crisis, and that should be of concern to all of us--especially the people of the churches--because the public schools are the only educational resource for the poor, the deprived and the newly arrived. Public schools are their only secure path to opportunity, skill and citizenship. Because of that they deserve our support, and because they are in crisis they need our help.

It is no secret that the public schools are overwhelmed by social problems and increasingly so underfunded and mismanaged that, in many large cities, they are barely viable institutions. And now in state after state, taxpayers are revolting against supporting them with revenues from the traditional sources--or, even more threatening, are planning to allocate some of the money raised for education to alternative schools.

Consider the example of California. On Nov. 2, state voters will act on an initiative, Proposition 174, that would give all parents tax-exempt vouchers redeemable as tuition at private or church schools for $2,600. At public schools, the voucher would be worth the whole amount.

The money going to the private schools would come from the funds of the public schools, which must take all students applying regardless of sex, race, economic status, aptitude or physical ability. Those opposing the proposition say that the public schools would be left with the students harder to educate and with less and less money to educate them.

Albert Shanker, president of the American Federation of Teachers, states that if the $2,600 per student went to just 500,000 of the children already in private schools in California, the public schools would lose $2.6 billion. And already the state has cut educational amenities like libraries, counseling, and music and art programs to meet recession budgets.

The common will to support community schools by property taxes, once a given in American life, has weakened. Consider Michigan, which revoked property tax support for public schools in the last session of its Legislature. Granted, supporting the schools by these means has resulted in inequities between rich and poor districts--a valid criticism--but is it realistic to think that the taxpayers will be willing to raise taxes for schools any other way? The resistance they have shown to redistribution reforms does not bode well for the future of the schools.

The plight of the public schools is also of concern to the churches because the growing tendency to withdraw money from the public schools to facilitate "choice" for parents will be a windfall for church schools and other private schools. For the Catholic Archdiocese of Los Angeles, the added money from Proposition 174 would help fill 8,000 spaces in its inner-city schools.

Is it morally defensible to accept that money at the expense of the common schools? Many church leaders think so. Some of them have been instrumental in fomenting the taxpayers' revolt. They see administrators of the public schools as relativists in teaching values and morality (if these are taught at all) and permissive in matters of student sexual activity.

These religious leaders make common cause with parents who see the lowering test scores of students nationwide as a threat to their children's futures, and with those who object to the use of the schools as a social laboratory experimenting in multiculturalism and anti-Eurocentric curriculums.

But are the present proposals the right approach? Perhaps, as Shanker suggests, we should look at the schools of our competitor nations--none of whom have voucher systems or foster alternative schools. They focus their schools on educational results, holding their students to national standards that have consequences--getting jobs or getting into good colleges.

The people of the churches should be concerned with helping the public schools out of the current crisis, if only because historically we were responsible for making them more than educational institutions, for using them as a means of community organization.

As Elliott Wright, historian of the religious press, has remarked in the manuscript of a forthcoming book, after the Civil War the public schools were essentially Protestant schools: "The common schools taught the three Rs and underscored the value of the religious majority." Because of this, the extensive and well-organized Catholic school system came into being (one reason that there is justice in the Catholic claim to some public funding for the parochial schools).

That subsequent groups have waged war against any hint of religion or religious values in the classroom, resulting in the ambiguous attitude of the schools to morality today, has to be seen as a reaction, albeit an overreaction, to the original situation. Before we set on a course that may end in the demise of the common school, we should take history into account and rethink our options.

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