In a replay of 1993, Gov. Pete Wilson is proposing a school voucher program for California. This time, it would apply to students whose schools ranked in the bottom 5% scholastically; such students would be eligible for vouchers worth 90% of the state's per-pupil cost to attend the public, private or sectarian school of their parents' choice.
By aiming his voucher program at the worst schools, the governor probably hopes to squelch much of the opposition that killed the 1993 school voucher ballot initiative, which he himself opposed. Who could complain about giving poor kids in bad schools a choice? Nothing could be worse than the substandard education they're receiving, could it?
Speaking as a former teacher, something is worse. A voucher system is worse, in whatever guise and no matter how gussied up with cynically invoked, tear-jerking images of poor children. A voucher system remains a gross perversion of the concept of publicly financed education and the death knell of the last hope for an American populace bound by common knowledge and ideals.
The question is simple: Will Americans be forced to finance teachings directly antithetical to their best interests? Will you pay for children to be educated in beliefs, practices and even hatreds that threaten your very being? Will Jews be forced to underwrite sectarian schools that hold Judaism to be a second-class religion? Will gay and lesbian Americans pay for classes teaching that they are sinners deserving of any ill that befalls them? Will white Americans help finance Nation of Islam schools which teach that whites are the spawn of a mad scientist's experiment? Will black parents pay for white children to learn at schools espousing white supremacy?
Everyone has something to lose if we succumb to the concept of forcing taxpayers to finance private education over which we, as citizens, have no control. Doing so would be incompatible with the very purpose of public education, which is to promote our common interests as members of the American community and so preserve our commonwealth.
My mother spent her life teaching in public schools--inner-city public schools--even though her credentials and qualifications could have earned her better money and softer conditions in private academies. She believed that underprivileged children were most in need of a public school atmosphere, most in need of the mainstream cultural influence that such atmosphere fostered, most in need of inculcation into the societal fabric that publicly financed education should provide.
A voucher system spits in the eye of all of that. Some special interest groups, such as religious conservatives, applaud a voucher system because the rest of us would pay for their children's indoctrination into their particular religious beliefs. Would they be as willing to pay for other children to attend academies preaching atheism? Even if they were, would it be in the rest of our interests to pay for either?
It would not.
Any way you look at it, a voucher system remains a sure route toward a greater balkanization of America, a hastening of our retreat to our private ethnic, religious and subcultural corners.
This is no defense of the public school status quo. The public school system needs nationwide, institutional overhaul. We are currently teaching 19th century curricula to 21st century kids using 18th century methods. The innovations of our best schools need to be expanded to cover all schools. But instead of perverting the very concept of publicly financed education, let's rethink the current system and make it fill our needs.
Remember, we taxpayers don't fund the education system out of charitable impulses. The public education system is a selfish institution, which should serve our selfish ends all of our ends. Let's be selfish and demand that it serve our needs to its fullest, not trash it for a system guaranteed to harm us all.