POSTED ON JULY 11, 2007:
Vouching for Education
Controversial program for school choice gives both pro and con forces a chance to hold forth
Aristotle once said, "All who have meditated on the art of governing mankind have been convinced that the fate of empires depends on the education of youth."
History itself bears witness that this is no empty platitude, as the philosopher knew firsthand that greatness in education can create greatness in students, who are then likely to be the ones to decide the destinies of those around them and of generations to follow. Aristotle's most famous pupil--Alexander the Great--proved the truth of his mentor's observation when he conquered the known world and laid the foundation for western civilization.
With the stakes so high, then, it's not surprising that some of today's leaders are alarmed at certain reports that the United States is falling behind other developed countries when it comes to educating its youth, and have proposed radical, controversial changes in order to keep us from losing our position of greatness in the world.
One of those proposed changes is implementation of an education voucher system in which parents' tax dollars follow their child in the form a certificate, enabling them to send their child to the school of their choice rather than to the one determined by a school district on the basis of where students live.
Economist Milton Friedman first introduced the concept in the 1950s with the philosophy that it would enable the American education system to more greatly resemble a free market economy by promoting choice on the part of "education consumers" rather than the dictates of a government monopoly.
Other, more recent proposals to that end include tax credits for private schools and the promotion of charter schools.
One man's free market, though, is another man's "Law of the Jungle," as critics of these proposals say they'll do more harm than good by sacrificing the very institution that makes America such a shining example of equality and justice in the world.
The latest round of debate on the subject in Oklahoma happened largely beyond most observers' notice, as it was sparked by a little known piece of proposed legislation that didn't go anywhere or accomplish anything, apart from providing an occasion to revisit the discussion over school choice.
Tulsa's Republican state Sen. James Williamson, who is widely known for his advocacy of vouchers and other proposals meant to foster greater choice among parents, introduced SB 536 during the latest session.
The bill would have created the Scholarships for Students with Disabilities Program, which would have provided "scholarships" for disabled students to attend a private school of choice where they would be taught according to an individualized education program.
Sen. Jay Paul Gumm, D-Durant, saw the bill as a thinly-veiled attempt at "the camel getting its nose under the tent" for a voucher program, and led the opposition that killed the bill in a 4-4 vote of the Senate Education Appropriations Subcommittee.
Gumm, who might be considered Williamson's arch-nemesis on this particular issue since he's probably equally well known among constituents for his opposition to any form of a voucher program, took the occasion to write an opinion-editorial piece in criticism of the concept, which ran in a local Tulsa newspaper.
Gumm's offering was soon answered by another op-ed piece by Sen. Kathleen Wilcoxson, R-Oklahoma City, who argued in favor of vouchers.
Williamson, who taught in the Tulsa Public Schools in his pre-legislative life, argues along with other proponents that vouchers would improve school quality by fostering competition--the good schools, public or private, would attract students with their tax-dollars, while the bad ones would either get up to par or go away, they say.
In a recent interview with UTW, Williamson pointed to a segment on ABC's "20/20" by John Stossel entitled "Stupid in America," which ran last year, as one his influences in supporting vouchers.
Among other demonstrations of his point that "(government) monopoly kills innovation and cheats kids," Stossel used an international test to compare the performances of U.S. students from an above-average high school in New Jersey to that of high school students in Belgium.
In Belgium, education funding follows the student, much like the voucher program advocated by Williamson and others.
"Belgian kids cleaned the American kids' clocks and called them 'stupid,'" reported Stossel in his segment.
Meanwhile in America, Wilcoxson, who is also a former educator (Oklahoma City's 1990 "Teacher of the Year," no less) pointed in her op-ed piece to a handful of reports that also indicate that the U.S. isn't competing very well with other industrialized nations.
One of those reports was "Leaders and Laggards: A State-by-State Report Card on Educational Effectiveness," which was recently issued by the U.S. Department of Commerce.
"Succeeding in this new era (of global competition) will require our children to be prepared for the intellectual demands of the modern workplace and a far more complex society," reads the report's overview on the U.S. Chamber website.
"Yet the evidence indicates that our country is not ready. Despite decades of reform efforts (in response to the 1983 education report "A Nation at Risk") and many trillions of dollars in public investment, U.S. schools are not equipping our children with the skills and knowledge they--and the nation--so badly need," it continues.
In a nation that's lagging behind, Oklahoma is a laggard among laggards, according the report, ranking 40th among the states with a grade of 'F' for "Academic Achievement" and another 'F' for "Truth in Advertising about Student Proficiency."
Oklahoma ranked just below Arizona and just above California.
Massachusetts led the nation while D.C. was dead last.
"Education spending has steadily increased and rafts of well-intentioned school reforms have come and gone. But student achievement has remained stagnant, and our K-12 schools have stayed remarkably unchanged--preserving, as if in amber, the routines, culture, and operations of an obsolete 1930s manufacturing plant," the report also reads.
"Clearly the status quo isn't working," wrote Wilcoxson in response to the Commerce Department's findings.
"It's time to put the education of Oklahoma's children back in the hands of parents. One way to do that is to promote increased school choice. With more competition in the state-funded school monopoly, Oklahoma could do a better job of preparing children for productive and rewarding lives," she added.
Wilcoxson argued that vouchers would create the same opportunities for low-income families that have long been enjoyed by more financially well off families by giving them the same options to attend private schools or the public school of their choice.
"This freedom is the one great hope for parents and their children to break the cycle of ignorance and subsequent poverty. Choice in the selection of schools is as appropriate as choice in the selection of any other goods and services," she said.
However, Gumm, among others, argues that a voucher system would have the opposite effect by destroying the public education system, which he described to UTW as "the Great Equalizer in our society" during a recent interview.
"Social Darwinism at it's most perverse" was his description for what would ensue if a voucher system were implemented.
Under a voucher system, Gumm said, private schools would benefit from public tax dollars while they cherry-picked the best students in order to improve their image and competitiveness, leaving average or below average students to stay in public schools with their diminishing resources.
"We're going to abandon every child who can't get into a private school and allow people to turn their back on the public education system," he said.
Frosty Troy, founding editor of the Oklahoma Observer, agrees with Gumm and other opponents of a voucher system that it would lead to a greater disparity in educational quality between the rich and the poor.
Troy is best known in Oklahoma as a newsman and long-time fixture in the Capitol press corps, but he is probably better known in the rest of the country as an advocate for public education. He averages about 30 public speaking engagements a year on education and is set to speak before a gathering of 11,000 people in New Orleans next month for the national convention of the Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development.
Even if private schools didn't charge tuition beyond the amount of tax dollars provided the by the vouchers, Troy said low-income families would still have the problem of coming up with ways to fund the increased transportation costs that would arise if they chose to send their children to schools beyond the distance of their local public school.
Also, he added, "I don't believe a word John Stossel says," in reference to his "Stupid in America" arguments in favor of a voucher system.
Without elaborating, Troy said he's noticed Stossel "lying about statistics" in other news programs.
Contentions raised by critics like Troy and Gumm that "vouchers (would) put our entire education future at risk," Wilcoxson dismisses as mere "fear mongering" that is "not supported by history or facts."
She said, "(Under a voucher system) private schools and competitive public schools are more accountable directly to the consumers--the parents. School choice generally results in higher parental satisfaction, greater academic achievement and better public schools."
Oklahoma's top teacher, state Superintendent of Public Instruction Sandy Garrett, has spoken out in the past against a school voucher system, but recently told UTW that such a change is unnecessary because, she said, "We already have school choice in Oklahoma."
She said the federal No Child Left Behind Act has provisions allowing parents to transfer their children out of schools that are underperforming (see related article this issue about NCLB), and there were approximately 33,000 such transfers in Oklahoma last year.
While she doesn't support implementation of a voucher system, Garrett said she doesn't agree either with Gumm or with Wilcoxson and other voucher proponents.
She disagrees with proponents because, as previously addressed, vouchers are unnecessary because schools already have to compete to keep students, and she disagrees with Gumm because, she said, his arguments are somewhat overstated about the destruction vouchers would sow within public education.
However, Garrett said she welcomes the discussion of a voucher system and other proposals because dialogue on how to improve education can only help.
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