The Boondoggle of Vouchers and School Choice

The Boondoggle of Vouchers and School Choice

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The Boondoggle of School Choice


The summer before my freshman year of high school, my suburban school district decided to implement a new school choice program developed for the state of Massachusetts. It is a program-limited choice similar to many others around the country. Schools offer a certain number of spaces in each class for "choice students," that is, students from other towns who wish to attend the school. Students apply and enter a random lottery system. If they are chosen, they become legally-enrolled students at the new school. The costs of the program are covered by the child's hometown or subsidized by the state.


The logic of the program (and all other choice programs) is that it offers students the ability to attend better schools than those in their hometowns. School choice is lauded as the great white hope of American education. "Let's give those kids a chance!" "Let's take control of our children's education!" Supporters claim that school choice will not only save our students, but it will also save our schools. Schools will be forced to improve their programs to remain competitive. Soon, all students will be attending the schools they want to, and all schools will be worthy of their students. School choice is the panacea for the problems of American education.


Or at least that's what the proponents of the program tell us. Unfortunately, they leave out a few crucial points. School choice will not be the saving of the American mind. It is a desperate attempt to patch up the problems of our system by offering a few students a new option and calling it salvation. One is reminded of a great juggling act, where if a few students are shuffled around, we may not notice the others falling to the ground. Pay no attention to the man behind the curtain . . .


Let me stress that I am not speaking as a bitter product of the system who feels that school choice has hurt her educational experience. When it was first installed in our school, a number of parents, students and community members were outraged. They took a "not in my backyard" approach to the situation, bemoaning the influx of students from "bad schools." They thought that the innocence of our town would be lost, as students who were different from our sheltered community were admitted.

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Frankly, I was appalled by their attitudes and repulsed by the prejudice directed at people who lived a mere twenty minutes away. I became a defender of the program out of my shear embarrassment at the snobbery of my community. However, upon studying the program, I was forced to change my mind. Understand, I only benefited from the choice program. In fact, my best friend was a "choice kid" from the next town over. School choice has enriched my life.


However, I think the program should be discontinued. It is not good educational policy. It is unfair to students, and it does not lead to solutions. First of all, there is limited space at the better schools. My class (the first to have students utilize the program for the full four years of high school) accepted thirty-five choice students though more than one hundred applied for the spots. The fact is that schools can only hold so many students. How is society to determine which students get to have a superior education? Even if the decision is random, which it was at my school, the fact is that seventy-five students did not get to "choose" - the "choice" was made for them. Children should not be denied a first-rate education because they are unlucky. They should not be punished because a random lottery system denies them the school they choose. School choice does not open a window of better education to all. It merely lets a few more sneak through.


Well, you might ask, what of it? If we did not have the program, no students would have the chance at a better education. Is it not better to help a few than none at all? That might be true, if those few could be helped at no cost to those who are left in the old schools. However, it is primarily the most motivated students, the "best and the brightest," who take advantage of these programs. This is devastating to the schools they leave behind. Not only are schools stripped of their brightest students, depriving them of the learners who help to enliven classrooms, but it sends a message to the rest of the students. That message is simple enough - education is only for the smart and the rich (after all, the best public schools are those in wealthy neighborhoods). Is this the message we want to give our children? Moreover, the incentive to save the schools will become even less pressing, as would-be activist parents decide to send their children to better institutions, rather than try to reform the system. Our schools would be deserted by their most influential lobby - the involved parent.


Kurt Vonnegut Jr. said that "High school is closer to the core of the American experience than anything I can think of." The question we must ask ourselves is: what kind of experience do we want to offer the children of America? I believe that every child deserves a chance at a superior education. However, I deny that school choice programs offer children that chance. These programs allow for the flight of the brightest and most motivated students out of locals schools. Do we want to create a situation where a few magnet schools attract students and the rest of the schools languish? The solution is to fix our broken schools, not encourage our students to flee them. It is to make all schools worthy of a student's "choice." It is not until every school offers students the tools to build a successful career and a meaningful life that we will have true "choice" in education. It will not be choice of a specific school, but rather, the choice of a bright future. This will be the true solution to America's educational problems.


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