In spite of consistent opposition from the general public, legislative and judicial bodies, and the vast majority of educators--all of whom are strongly committed to our heritage of church-and-state separation--John E. Coons continues to play lobbyist for a private-school voucher system (“‘Choice’ Plans Should Include Private Option,” Commentary, Jan. 17, 1990).
In his Commentary, Mr. Coons attempts to revive his tired rhetoric regarding vouchers by linking that concept with the public-school “choice” movement. But even if the fundamental constitutional issues could be resolved, Mr. Coons’s proposals would deserve to remain moribund.
Choice within the public-school system is a quantum leap from Mr. Coons’s notion of governmental support for private and parochial schools. The movement for choice is founded on the presumption that competition for students will improve public education. While that position may be arguable, it at least speaks to the crucial importance of public education.
Mr. Coons, on the other hand, believes that public education has, at best, outlived its original purposes: “The imposition of a common [public] curriculum would thus serve both a ‘truth’ function and a social function. The truth function has evaporated.”
And at worst, Mr. Coons suggests that public education contributes to anti-intellectualism and social stratification: “The vanilla curriculum of public education must endure, and it is an appropriate diet for those who prefer it. ... What Horace Mann actually achieved in the lobbied [public] curriculum was a plausible design for social division.’'
Mr. Coons’s cure for what he sees as the malaise created by the “sanitized public curriculum” is to underwrite, with tax dollars, the individual philosophies and educational panaceas of private-school proprietors who, in his words, will “teach truth as they see it.” Most reasonable choice plans do not propose, as does Mr. Coons, to give new money to parents so that they might shop at the educational mall. Rather, the plans would provide for the redistribution of existing monies to those public schools that are affected by enrollment changes due to parental choice.
The logical extension of Mr. Coons’s argument would be that parents could keep the cash from the state and tutor their children at home. While home schooling may well be appropriate for some, should it be subsidized by the state? What about issues such as governance and accreditation?
It seems somewhat ironic, albeit understandable, that Mr. Coons appears willing to sell out the traditional freedoms of private education to receive government subsidies. He states that “every private and public school would accept the new responsibility of admitting a substantial share of low-income children.”
Whom would Mr. Coons suggest--other than the government--as an appropriate regulatory body to see that such responsibilities are carried out? Would private schools adhere to the guidelines of accrediting associations or to state regulations regarding teacher licensing? If not, how would unsuspecting parents and children be protected from unscrupulous entrepreneurs out for a quick voucher? Perhaps we would need a “Better School Bureau.”
Mr. Coons’s ideas would tremendously increase the total cost of education to benefit those who have already opted for private schooling. Or does he imagine that only new enrollees would receive the vouchers? Hardly. His program would either destroy private education as it currently exists, by requiring accreditation, licensing, and other government regulations, or it would ask the public to indiscriminately support all manners and forms of unsupervised schooling.
Mr. Coons’s elitist remarks notwithstanding, public schools need to be improved, not dismantled. More than ever, our public schools must perform functions that no other institution can. Contrary to his assertion that a form of “irenic censorship” dictates public-education curricula, the schools actually provide the only forum where all viewpoints regarding a particular issue receive consideration and scrutiny without the a priori biases found in private education. Public schooling is the only educational enterprise dedicated, by design, to offering a program that respects the myriad outlooks and values held by all of the children of all of the people.
In Mr. Coons’s view, it is lamentable that public schools “teach the compromises that emerge from the clashes of labor, minorities, feminists, churches, homosexuals, nationalists, and business.” Some of us would suggest that such an approach is far preferable to the type of sectarian, special-interest, private education that he extols as teaching “particular descriptions of God, intellect, will, human immortality, and the limits of science.”
But the beauty of our current approach to education is that both systems exist. Mr. Coons’s proposals would irreparably damage one of them by diverting much needed funding from it, while inalterably changing the other by subsidizing it with public monies and thus subjecting it to government regulation and control.
A version of this article appeared in the February 14, 1990 edition of Education Week as The Risks of Inclusive ‘Choice’ Plans