There is arguably nothing more fruitful than debating the status of public education in our country, which is why I was so heartened to see Alex Wong's recent discussion of it in his column ("Escaping the blackboard jungle," The Daily Pennsylvanian, 10/2/00). And I agreed with his criticisms of public schools wholeheartedly -- until I read his claim that private-school vouchers present the best solution to them. There are a few fundamental problems in Alex's argument. He asserts that schools have nothing to lose in offering vouchers, that schools that typically spend between $11,000 and $15,000 per pupil will actually profit by handing out $3,000-$5,000 vouchers. Where exactly do these figures come from? Average school spending per student generally hangs somewhere between $6,000 and $8,000, unless a community is particularly advantaged; Philadelphia, for one, spends $7,669 per pupil (for this information, look at area school report cards on Philly.com). If schools actually spent as much on students as Alex purports, perhaps weÿwouldn't need vouchers at all. What's more, what exactly is a $3,000 or even $5,000 voucher going to do for a family that has a low income, say of $25,000 per year? It might allow them to send their children to the parochial school down the street, but it's not going to open up the Andovers and Choates of the country to them. In order for that to happen, school vouchers would have to reach figures of $25,000 or more -- a sum our common sense will tell us government simply can't accommodate. For these reasons, vouchers will never entirely obviate the elitism running rampant in education. Furthermore, most voucher proponents predicate their argument on a number of dangerous assumptions, the first being that every parent will actually take the initiative to hunt out the best school available for their children. Not every kid in the U.S. has the privilege that so many Penn students have -- caring and able parents who invest tirelessly in their children and in their education. If we give up on public schools and leave so much up to private efforts, how do we ensure that there won't be children who are neglected and left behind in the shuffle for private schools? Our government certainly won't be able to -- by pushing education into the private sector, we erase our ability to regulate education, to ensure that standards are maintained, to guarantee that every student, regardless of background, will receive a fair chance at a sound education. Private schools, by definition, simply cannot be held accountable to the general public in the manner that public schools can. To my mind, and as the voucher discussion seems to suggest, the greatest single problem facing public education is the localized nature of schools, which we have done little to try to alleviate. Where you live -- how affluent or economically depressed your community is -- determines the resources of your school district, and in turn, the quality of education you're likely to receive. Zoning laws and the disproportionate power of wealthy citizens and towns only reinforce the division between the wealthy and the impoverished. Let's not take money away from public schools or put more of an emphasis on private ones by implementing vouchers -- let's make education less local in nature. Let's consider regionalizing schools in order to eradicate disparities from town to town, to equalize tax bases. Let's consider using state and federal laws to balance financial resources and to enforce more uniform standards. If we do that, who needs vouchers? Evaluating teachers more stringently would help control educational disparities, as would paying teachers more. How will the teaching profession attract the best and brightest college graduates if it's also going to give them the most dismal prospects for material compensation? How many people are noble enough to settle on $40,000, or even $60,000 a year for the rest of their lives when they know they can make twice as much elsewhere? Unfortunately for public education, too few. We haven't even begun to explore many of these potential solutions yet. Let's not, then, give up on public education -- which is essentially what the voucher system means -- without doing our best to improve public schools first.Comments powered by Disqus
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