Editore"s Note
Tilting at Windmills

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September 25, 2003
By: Kevin Drum

VOUCHER-PHOBIA....Matt Miller says liberals need to get over voucher-phobia:

It is time to reject the political orthodoxy that says you must either be "for" improving public schools or "for" vouchers that help people escape them. This is a false choice. It says less about the logic of reform than about the poverty of a debate that's strangled by interest groups and ideology on both sides.

The better view is that bigger tests of vouchers designed in progressive ways are perfectly consistent with major new public school initiatives.

If voucher trials are designed to give a voucher to every poor child in a district, and if they're funded in ways that raise per-pupil spending toward the levels enjoyed in nearby affluent suburbs, then liberals should be open to seeing what might result.

But here's the thing, Matt: I could be convinced of this. Choice is good. Competition might provide a better product. Kids might benefit.

But public shools that receive federal funds are required to test students under the No Child Left Behind Act. That testing, we are told, is crucial to demonstrating "accountability," but for some reason private schools that receive voucher money don't need to show this same level of accountability. Why?

Under NCLB public schools that receive federal funds are also required to employ certified teachers. Private schools that receive voucher money aren't. Why?

And then, of course, there's the real nub of the whole thing: public schools pay their teachers a lot more than private schools because they have to negotiate pay scales with teachers' unions. I'm going to take a wild guess here and suggest that teacher union opposition to vouchers and liberal opposition generally might fade away if voucher funded schools were required to pay union scale.

One of the cornerstones of our country is the proposition that every child is entitled to a good education. If public money is used for this, the public naturally wants some oversight over the job: they want to know that qualified teachers are hired and paid a fair salary, that facilities are decent, that special ed kids are taken care of, and that everyone is treated fairly and given an equal chance even the kids with big time discipline problems.

Sure, this oversight costs money, but conservatives are usually eager to have greater oversight of government funded programs. Don't want to waste public funds, after all. So why are vouchers any different? Put in place the right funding and the right oversight of a voucher program, and you might get my vote. But if it's just a transparent ploy to bust a union and cut teacher salaries in half, you can forget it.

So let's take conservatives at their word: the reason they want vouchers is because it helps poor kids break out of the cycle of poverty. Then what's more important: helping our nation's kids or busting a union?

What's it going to be?

Kevin Drum 9:53 AM Permalink | Trackbacks

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