by John Wayne Tucker - a Patriotic Perspectives featured blog
Vouchers are a huge political and educational issue right now. It is not a new issue by any means. The history of the voucher system goes back to the 1960’s when parents of parochial school children began to argue that it was not fair that they had to pay taxes to fund public school and also pay tuition to send their children to parochial school with no kind of financial break provided by the government. This became a genuine issue of separation of church and state. For the federal government to fund a religious school would be a real Constitutional violation. However, move forward to the present and we find a totally different argument. Given the problems faced by the public schools (which I will grant you are huge), the argument has turned to the issue of school choice.
People argue that they should have the choice to educate their children wherever they wish. Much of this argument seems focused around religious issues, but does not seem to violate separation of church and state per se. The argument is generally based on the issues of schools teaching evolution and refusing to give equal or any time to creationism. Also, there is the issue of sex education which in most cases now centers around teaching homosexuality as an acceptable choice. Add in the criminal activity found in many public schools, the failure of students to actually learn at adequate levels, overcrowded classrooms, often less than adequate facilities, and it is easy to see why people are anxious for choice in education including the option to homeschool their children.
Please be aware that this essay is not an argument against school choice. I favor school choice completely. It should be possible for people to send their children to any school or to homeschool them. This is simply an argument that the voucher system will destroy the public school system and further decrease the quality of education. If the people want to destroy the public school system, so be it. However, they need to be aware of what they are doing and the consequences before they go rushing into a voucher system. Also, please note that while I talk about the problems of students who do nothing, I have had during my career both those that would do nothing and some of the most brilliant minds and wonderful people that you could ever hope to meet. I wish that they all fit into the later part, but sadly, that is not the case.
To understand the problem, we need to first understand some things about how a public school actually functions and some of the problems they currently face. Before I begin this, let me say that we are fortunate in Missouri to not face many of the problems that were mentioned above. I taught public school for almost 30 years in the South St. Louis County area and there was never an instance of teaching homosexuality as an acceptable choice, however, a “gay and lesbian” club was started the year after I retired.
The real problem that we face with vouchers and public schools is firstly that schools function on very tight budgets and are often the largest employers in their area. Most of the operating capital goes to salaries of certified and non-certified staff. The goal is always to find an acceptable balance between number of students and number of teachers. Generally the student to teacher ratio ends up way too high with the typical classroom in an urban area running at 30 to 35 students and sometimes more (although Missouri law limits the ratio to a maximum of 35 to 1). It is difficult to determine the exact figure of students that will attend any particular school until the last minute. Therefore, assuring adequate staff is something of a guessing game. There are always last minute changes due to people moving in and out of the district. Secondly, the schools face the problem of supplying adequate numbers of textbooks, computer labs, library books, food services, desks, rooms and massive numbers of other intricacies surrounding the adequate provision of supplies.
While all of these factors are critical to the equation, perhaps the most critical part of the equation centers around recent trends in the relationship between parents and schools regarding grades and performance expectations. In addition, one must realize that there is a massive difference between the actual facilities of many school districts when compared with other school districts. This difference in facilities is based on the taxes paid by the people in the particular neighborhood where the school is located. The more expensive the homes, the higher the taxes and thus the more money the school has to spend on facilities and on teacher salaries.
The most critical issue, however, is the relationship between parents and the school districts. When parents were encouraged to be more involved with the schools and their children’s educations, I imagined this to mean that parents would work as partners with the teachers to make certain that their children were performing at their maximum capacity. Nothing could have been further from the truth. The reality was that parents began to come into the school and demand many things on behalf of their children. Mostly this meant that teachers and administrators were expected to guarantee success for the child. When most of us went to school, failure was an option. It was a good option because we learned that there are consequences for not doing what is expected or required. Now, parents have to be asked if a child can be retained in a grade. It cannot be done without their permission. Parents argue over their children’s grades and even take papers to friends or other teachers for a second opinion on a grade (ridiculous, since the other teacher would have no basis on which to base conclusions).
The time of expecting a child to read or write anything has ended. Parents can get a doctor to specify a learning problem and then the child is exempt from responsibility for that issue. For example, some students do not have to spell things correctly, some are allowed to have someone read tests for them, some are allowed to hit people because that is their problem; they hit people. The list goes on and on. Add to this the ridiculous “No Child Left Behind Act” and the problem is significantly exacerbated. Children may not fail under this law. If they do, the school is held responsible for the failure. It does not matter that they do not take the standardized tests seriously that are used to calculate success under this law. It does not matter that the child refuses to do work, study, pay attention, stay awake in class, or even attend school; the school is responsible for his failure.
Perhaps the most devastating thing for a teacher to deal with in public education is when parents come to the school and demand changing their child’s grades. One of the most remarkable things about that is that most parents are successful. Teachers, as a consequence of all these factors, were constantly called into the administrator’s office and asked to justify the number of failing grades they posted for children. After continuous explanations that the children refused to learn or even to show up to class, the unwritten rule was that we had entered the golden age of the “D-” Almost no one received a grade of less than a “D-” which generally appeased the parents and the children. But the parents all expected their children to go to college. However, they could not afford for them to go to college, so it became unacceptable to give the “D-” grade anymore. Now, a “C” is the standard minimum grade, giving parents a better chance of acquiring a scholarship or at least admittance into college.
At this point, the colleges began to complain that students did not read, could not read, would not do homework and performed at unacceptable levels for college. The blame went to the public schools. Remedial classes were provided for college students. And now, grade inflation has reached the college level as well.
Grade inflation is a serious problem in our country. Parents demand good grades regardless of the ability level of the child. The child is not held responsible for the grades, but the teachers and schools are. In reality, grade inflation is equal to the dumbing down of America. In order to show how widespread is the problem of grade inflation, please note this almost unbelievable problem. Schools give progress reports at specific intervals (different intervals for each district). Progress reports as people should realize are not grade reports, but simply a report of the progress the child is making up to that point prior to the grade report to give the child and the parent sufficient time to judge how to correct any problems. Now, parents are demanding that grades on progress reports be changed. In fact, it has become such a problem in many districts that the teacher is not allowed to give a failing grade on a progress report unless they have first warned the parent in advance that the child might receive an “F” on the progress report.
Now, what does all of this mean with respect to vouchers? Essentially, under the voucher system, the government would give each parent the amount of money (presumably everyone would get the same amount) necessary to teach their child in any school of any type. This, of course, would return the church and state issue as the government would now be financing church school educations.
Presumably, the government would also be able to demand certain behaviors or curriculums from those church schools. That church school might not be able to drop a student who is disruptive or a problem as they can now. Of course, the first problem for public schools would be the inability to even begin to calculate the number of students they would receive. Therefore, they would not be able to be prepared with resources and teachers unless the vouchers were committed significantly prior to the school year. However, what if the school does not get enough students to warrant the cost of keeping the school open?
The cost of running a facility just on the basis of heating, cooling and maintenance is enormous. The school might not be able to stay open at all. This would mean, of course, that excessive numbers of students would have committed their vouchers to other schools. That would also mean that those schools would have more students than they would be able to handle in the facilities which they already have. Of course, my choice would be to send my child to the best facilities where everything is nice, clean, and new and of the best quality. The school which can hire the most expensive teachers should be best, right? Now, people who are paying less money for taxes get the benefit of the schools where people pay more taxes for their schools. Is that redistribution of wealth? How will the school that did not attract vouchers compete? After all, the argument is that this will create competition which will improve education. However, education is NOT A BUSINESS. And what do we do about the transportation issue? It is clear that the real winners in the desegregation of schools were those that provided the transportation. The cost of education would, under the voucher system; increase by massive amounts and the logistics of providing transportation would be a nightmare.
How do schools compete for students when the thing that parents most want is good grades, not an education? Remember the grade inflation problem? Many schools promise that sending your child to their school will guarantee the best grades. How will children get those grades? By working harder? Or will the grades simply be given away in what will become an even greater grade inflation problem? I am convinced that vouchers will guarantee that the public school system will collapse and that grade inflation will amplify to the point that no learning will take place and no grade will mean anything. Even if there are schools that have real performance standards and the students really learn, those students will compete for college spots with students who got better grades for doing nothing.
If the people want to destroy the public school system or simply dismantle it, that is their right. I suggest, however, that it would be more efficient and profitable to create a whole new system of schools and phase it in over a period of years rather than jump into a voucher system that would, in my opinion leave us woefully inadequate to the tasks and challenges that face America. What we need is real education and a society that really values genuine learning and the ability to think and synthesize. We need a society that loves learning. Yes, our schools have become the harbor of propaganda and I agree that that must change. I just want us to make a wise change that will not sacrifice us to ignorance.
John Wayne Tucker