The Problem of Vouchers and School Choice

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The Problem of School Choice

Is it right to force students to attend the schools prescribed for them by geography? Is it fair to deny students who live in poorer neighborhoods the chance to go to better schools with better facilities, better teachers and safer conditions? Should we allow our tax revenues to leave our school districts for greener pastures? Should we permit schools poor in both resources and performance to wither on the vine, an acceptable casualty of competition?

Because of dissatisfaction with many public schools, particularly those in large urban settings, a movement to allow students to choose alternatives to their assigned schools has sprung up in various parts of the country and abroad. Proponents argue that competition for students (and their attendent tax revenues) will automatically make all schools better. They point to towns in Vermont who have no schools of their own and allow all their students to pick from surrounding public and private schools, applying their tax dollars to those entities. They talk about the successes of magnet schools and charter schools and link the school choice concept to our basic rights under the Constitution.

What kind of American would argue with that? What kind of capitalist would disagree with the beneficial effect on performance brought about by competition? Who wouldn't love the idea that students could pick their schools based on quality or experience of teachers, special offerings or curricula? Who doesn't cringe when they see images on television of graffiti-scarred inner city schools with bars on the windows and fear in the eyes of their students? Wouldn't we all want to see students escape these schools?

Of course we would. But l...

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...ialties of programs -- one school might focus on theatre, another on science enrichment, still another in government. But we could not allow a discrepancy in funding or community commitment to make one school a palace and another a snakepit. If we reform educational funding so that schools receive the resources they need to attract students based on their special features, rather than a desire to escape something, controlled school choice could work. I believe in the concept of magnet schools and perhaps even of charter schools. Convince me that those students most in need would not be left with the dregs and we can start to talk about it. Until then, let's work on addressing what makes some schools work and others not. Let's look at public education as an investment in our society's quality of life, not simply an entitlement for somebody else.
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