School vouchers may be the most disingenuous and hypocritical program produced by America’s right-wing ideologues since their attempts to portray Martin Luther King, Jr., as an opponent of affirmative action (Read King’s discussion of compensatory treatment in “Why We Can’t Wait” in 1964 for his defense of what wasn’t yet being called affirmative action). Vouchers for private schools divert funds from public education, subsidize unaccountable private — and often religious — schools and uphold racial segregation.
Since 2001, more than $75 million has been diverted from public education into voucher advocacy — a public-relations campaign to lay the ideological groundwork for spending tax dollars on private schools. Vouchers’ proponents uphold the importance of choice in education. But the increased opportunities for the few who benefit don’t match the detriment faced by the majority left unaddressed in crumbling public schools.
No Child Left Behind, Bush’s education plan, seeks to punish failing schools by not funding them. NCLB doesn’t prioritize teaching kids, but rather testing them to prove that they aren’t being taught. The logic alone is a sick joke. It gets worse when you consider that NCLB itself is underfunded to the tune of billions of dollars each year. Thus NCLB, as an unfunded mandate, leaves public schools in massive disrepair. Vouchers are then presented as the solution. The ideologues who previously trumpeted personal responsibility instead of accessible, well-funded public education now herald vouchers as the golden gate of opportunity for America’s poor. The prophecy becomes self-fulfilling and soon private schools (which are free from such shackles as Constitutional law, certification of teachers and data collection of racial composition) are free to discriminate on the basis of religion or ability. Meanwhile, public schools become a babysitting operation for those who are “unqualified,” instilling discipline above education for the poorest Americans.
Vouchers, because they can be used for religious schools, violate the First Amendment. Worse, these schools — as private institutions — are free from legal recourse, despite receiving public taxes. They are free to reject students who need additional attention due to lack of academic qualification or physical and mental disabilities. Further, many retain the right to fire teachers for religious reasons, lifestyle — such as being gay — or for one’s support of abortion rights. Vouchers were ruled unconstitutional in the 1967 court case Poindexter v. Louisiana. Because of the unaccountable nature of private schools, the Supreme Court correctly wrote the following: “The United States Constitution does not permit the State to perform acts indirectly through private persons which it is forbidden to do directly.”
The greatest hypocrisy of the voucher movement is its claims for racial integration. By making private schools more financially accessible, the argument goes, minorities will be better educated and integrated with white students. The first assumption, that private schools do a better job educating students than public schools do, is a widely held myth. When considering income levels and race (a consideration defenders of vouchers rarely make), publicly educated students perform at the same level as those privately educated. The central assertion, that vouchers help desegregate schools, is plain disingenuous. Milwaukee has the longest-running voucher program in the country (since 1990) and is in competition for the title of America’s most segregated city. More than 60 percent of Milwaukee’s public school attendees are black, yet fewer than 5 percent of the students at Milwaukee’s top three Catholic schools are black. Only 38 percent of the private schools in Milwaukee provide bussing, putting the poor and black at a further disadvantage. By tokenizing the occasional black student, Milwaukee’s private schools get away with disproportionately educating the white and the well-off under a banner of integration.
Show your opposition to the destruction of public schools by starting with UW. Join the rally against tuition hikes today at noon at the State Street corner of the Capitol Building.
Chris Dols ([email protected]) is a senior majoring in civil engineering and a member of the International Socialist Organization.