SONNY SCOTT: Examining the pros – and cons – of vouchers

By Sonny Scott

I have been asked for an opinion on the school voucher idea. So, at the risk of alienating my remaining friends in public education (both of them), here goes.
On one level, the voucher idea appeals to the libertarian in me. Bringing the dynamic of the market place to bear on schooling would have a bracing and salutary effect. Competition has produced splendid consumer products and services at reasonable prices, could help straighten out some of the unproductive mess that currently characterizes the school industry.
Anti-voucher hysteria emanates from two sources: 1) unions, which react to notions of accountability like cockroaches react to sudden illumination; and 2) secularists who object to a boon to parochial schools. Let’s deal with these in turn.
Accountability is inherent in any scheme that brings market principles to schooling. Schools that don’t perform to the expectations of their patrons will not thrive, and likely not survive. Teachers and administrators will have to be on their toes like Little Jimmy Dickens at the urinal. This prospect terrifies many teachers.
Furthermore, the teachers in such schools will not be fertile fields for unionization. Outstanding teachers will become marketable, and may have little inclination to hitch their wagons to the star of the marginal and incompetent. Likewise, nuns earning $18 K don’t get union organizers excited like disenchanted and none-too-energetic $45 K public school teachers. After you strip away the “rights of the worker” buncombe, union dues are big money, and fuel the process of unionization in all industries.
Now for the secularists: Just simmer down a moment, and think. Parochial schools are among the best of the nation’s prep schools. The elephant in the room here is fundamentalism, so let’s cut to the chase.
First, let’s get the straw man out of the way. Snake-handlers and the jihadists don’t enter into the equation here. Neither will gain traction in this country unless there’s a complete economic breakdown. If achievement testing is valid, it will weed those out. (If it’s not valid, let’s stop it, and save tons of money.)
The real boogeyman for the secularists is the Christian fundamentalist. His children are hard working, well scrubbed, and would be a great addition to anyone’s classroom, except for the world view taught in the home and church. To accommodate and perpetuate that view, fundamentalists have established their own schools. Will the children be harmed? Will the republic stand?
I remind you that in the last century, the majority of America’s children probably received educations not so very different from today’s fundamentalist sects in the public schools. Having quirky opinions about metaphysics doesn’t disqualify school marms from being adequate mentors of reading, writing, and arithmetic. True, immersion in “creation science” (sic) will mean the children will be at quite the disadvantage in the physical and biological sciences, but this will be overcome in college by the capable, and won’t stand in the way of a rewarding career in other fields for the less able. I just don’t see a big problem.
My concern with the voucher program is two-fold: 1) It will require a massive bureaucracy to administer; and 2) will surely drive up the cost of preparatory education. The bureaucracy will be ripe for corruption, like the present programs for welfare, health care, and farm and business subsidies. It will be happy hunting for crooks. Similar aid programs for higher education and for health care have driven the costs of services beyond the wildest expectations. I see no reason to expect otherwise from this scheme.
My suggestion? Abolish the current Department of Education.
Oh, and the current public schools? Well, they would be free to compete. No doubt, some of them would excel. Others might become little better than penal institutions – much like – oh, let’s not go there.
Sonny Scott is a Chickasaw County resident and a community columnist. Contact him at