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School Vouchers, Pro and Con: There's no Escape Clause in The Social Contract

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The deregulation of the public school system through the widespread use of school vouchers would lead to an elementary and secondary school system that is fragmented, inefficient, and inherently unequal. Surveys show that Americans want a public school system that is safe, productive, just, and rooted in the community. There are very few Americans that want to give public funds to private schools, or to corporate-sponsored educational-management organizations, known on the stock market as "EMOs." Public dollars belong in public schools that are democratically controlled, accountable to the public, and open to all children. Vouchers are a "back to the future" educational-reform strategy more suited to the age of Dickens than to the information age.

The use of vouchers to deregulate public education is poor public policy because:

  • Education is a political right and not a property right. Libertarians who argue for school vouchers generally treat education as though it were a personal or property right that belongs solely to the individual, to be discharged as he or she wishes. In effect, libertarians argue for a separation between school and community. This perspective is a deep misreading of human development and the necessity of communal living. Liberty is not a wall that separates individuals from the community, but a bridge that makes social cooperation possible. Education is a political right guaranteed by the 14th Amendment, which recognizes that the community has positive obligations to all citizens, including children.

* Educational markets do not work the way their advocates imagine. Drawing on Adam Smith's invisible-hand imagery, market advocates create the impression that markets operate in a self-correcting manner, yet the United States has the widest gap between the rich and the poor of any industrialized nation--and that gap is getting wider. Markets are power structures and, as such, are a fundamentally inappropriate way to create institutions that care for the young. A school system that assumed the characteristics of the real marketplace would inevitably cast aside the academically weak, the disadvantaged, and the handicapped as unprofitable--very likely under the label of "unteachable." Blaming the victim would be further institutionalized, where the bottom line was the ledger, not the learner.

* The use of public funds to support religious organizations is unconstitutional. For more than a decade religious organizations have been attempting to secure more public dollars for their schools. In a civil society, individuals are free to pursue their own visions of paradise, but the public is not obliged to pay for these visions. The use of public funding to support religious schools would produce an uncivil society, the very thing the framers of the Constitution intelligently worked to avoid.

* There is no known relationship between deregulation and student achievement. In thinking about practical policies to improve American schools, vouchers must rank among the lowest in terms of expected effectiveness for generating greater student achievement. Compared with preschool programs, compensatory education, preparation for work, and the better preparation of teachers, the policy of school deregulation seems a very long shot, indeed. Voucher advocates produce studies that they claim prove private schools are better than public schools. This evidence is scanty at best and far too weak to support the reorganization of American public education. Questionable data are not a sound basis for good public policy.

* The use of vouchers will resegregate and restratify society. Evidence from other countries indicates that unregulated school choice leads to increased social stratification. Computer simulations that test the effect of vouchers on access to education indicate that voucher plans would not equalize educational opportunity across income groups. Voucher schemes could make an already unjust school system even more unjust.

* Voucher schemes are bureaucratic nightmares waiting to be born. The distribution of vouchers could not occur without state regulation and without great expense.

Schools belong to the communities in which they are located; they are the symbols of a neighborhood's pride and the aspirations of people who know each other through work, community service, or mere proximity. The last thing we need is a disruption of a delicate social fiber that is already stretched thin. Voucher advocates suggest to us a stark utopia of rational choosers, cleverly manipulating the educational marketplace. I suggest that what is desperately needed is a recommitment to communities, their schools, and the children they serve through a reinvigoration of those public institutions that were established to level an unequal playing field, to promote a feeling of civic participation, and to ensure that equality of opportunity remains the bedrock of modern democracy.

Peter W. Cookson Jr. is the director of the Center for Educational Outreach and Innovation at Teachers College, Columbia University, in New York City. He is a sociologist of education who has published widely in the area of school reform.

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