Private School Vouchers


Proposals to use private school vouchers, a marketplace strategy, as a mechanism by which to improve the general quality of public education have produced a lively debate. Frequently, that debate has degenerated into a disagreement about whether public schools are as good as private schools or whether a given private school is better than a certain neighborhood public school.

Other issues raised in these discussions include the appropriate use of public funds, the role of competition in improving public education, and the right of parents to choose a school for their children. Although these issues are of interest, they are not the fundamental questions which must be raised about the future of public schools in a democracy.

Two Core Issues

In their rush to the marketplace, the proponents of private school choice supported by public funds have chosen to ignore two core issues. First, the advocates of private school choice studiously avoid any discussion of the relationship between public schools and the common or public good in a democracy. As an example, the Governor of Wisconsin asserts that "any school that serves the public is a public school" and should therefore receive public funds through a voucher system. There is no recognition in this proposal of the distinct and unique purpose of public education in serving the public good. This rhetorical sleight-of-hand does not mean that a private school of choice becomes a public school in purpose simply by so defining it. The claim is merely a device to divert public funds for private purposes.

The failure to recognize that public schools have a central responsibility in a democratic society is further evidenced by the work of John Chubb and Terry Moe, who argue that improving the efficiency and quality of public education will require the replacement of democratic governance by market mechanisms.

The authors state, "The most basic cause of ineffective performance among the nation's public schools is their subordination to public authority. ... The school's most fundamental problems are rooted in the institutions of democratic control by which they are governed".

Chubb and Moe deny the historic purposes of public schools when they reject the idea that educational policy should be directed by a common vision or purpose. They assert, "It should be apparent that schools have no immutable or transcendent purpose. ... What they are supposed to be doing depends on who controls them and what these controllers want them to do". The Thompson proposal for Wisconsin's schools embraces this belief system it is a denial of the fundamental role of public education in affirming the public good.

A second issue which remains unexamined in the rush to the marketplace concerns the claims offered in defense of private school choice. Choice is offered as a "lesson learned" rather than a proposition to be examined. Advocates of private school choice have ignored its history. Despite the claims made for a market-based school restructuring strategy, the history of choice does not support the claims of its proponents.

A Declaration of Crisis

Willingness to abandon strong support for public schools and to turn to marketplace solutions is driven by a crisis rhetoric. This rhetoric, which suggests that public education is failing, is not only misleading, it is dangerous because it may erode public confidence in the very institutions on which our capacity for a democratic response depends.

Criticism of public education has continued unabated since the publication of A Nation At Risk in 1983. Stimulated in large part by new international economic realities, by a domestic economy based on traditional production models, and by changing domestic demographics, the critics have sought solutions to these challenging problems by turning to schools and educators. The data cited by critics of public schools were accepted at face value until the late 1980's. However, since then, a variety of research reports have revealed that much of the criticism has been simplistic and has distorted and misrepresented the conditions of public education.

The credibility of the crisis-in-education claim, in fact, rests not on immutable evidence of school failure but, rather, on a linkage which has been established by critics between education and other social problems such as violent crime, drug use, family instability, and economic uncertainty. Although schools are not charged directly with creating these problems, the public is turning to public education for solutions to broad and complex social conditions. This occurred in the 1950's in response to the Russian scientific and