WITH Prop. 38 facing California voters, it's time to take a hard look at school vouchers.
Vouchers pay private-school tuition with taxpayers' money. The claim that this would improve opportunities for disadvantaged children is a brazen piece of deceit. The real agenda is to destroy educational opportunities for all but the privileged. The voucher movement aims to shut down the public school system and eliminate government funding for public education, however unlikely that possibility might seem.
``A voucher program would spell the end of government's role in education,'' enthuse voucher advocates Joseph L. Bast and David Harmer, writing for the Cato Institute in Washington.
Voucher backers sometimes mouth the deceptive line that ``competition would force public schools to improve'' -- even as many of them, including voucher godfather Milton Friedman, actually hope to destroy public schools. They also oppose mandatory education.
Friedman, Bast, Harmer and company call themselves ``separationists'' -- advocates of ``separation of school and state.''
``Separationists should ride the voucher train to get government out of the business of operating schools,'' Bast and Harmer urge.
The voucher/privatization faction deceptively portrays vouchers as poor kids' tickets into exclusive private schools. But most prestigious private schools don't want to admit low-income kids -- and under Prop. 38, they wouldn't have to. Even the sponsor of Prop. 38, venture capitalist Tim Draper, admitted at a March education forum that his own kids' private schools probably wouldn't accept voucher students. Draper's publicist insisted he would not say such a thing, but it's captured in online audio about 44 minutes into the Grace Cathedral forum (www.gracecathedral.org/enrichment/forum/for_20000319.shtml). Perhaps it was a moment of unguarded candor.
Voucher backers claim to envision the rise of new kinds of voucher schools, minimalist institutions that would welcome disadvantaged students. This fantasy resembles the sanguine assurances of 30 years ago that ``community-based'' facilities would appear when the state mental hospitals were phased out. The community facilities never materialized, leaving those who needed them sleeping in doorways and dumpsters.
If voucher schools do spring up, under Prop. 38 they'll be unregulated and unaccountable. They won't have to meet curriculum standards or report achievement. They'll be allowed to discriminate based on gender, language, religion, family income, and academic, behavioral and physical ability.
Meanwhile, Prop. 38 could provide tax-funded vouchers to every private-school student regardless of income -- including the 700,000 currently attending private schools. That could drain an estimated $3 billion from the state's general fund.
Like the notion that vouchers will help poor kids, other claims fall apart under scrutiny. Some samples:
Pro-voucher claim: Private schools are superior educators.
Reality: If private schools boast higher achievement -- which is unclear, since they don't report test scores -- it's because they exclude tough-to-educate kids.
Public schools' major challenge is the vast number of students with learning and behavioral problems, plus limited-English and disabled children. My third-grader's San Francisco public school teacher copes (amazingly well) with a daunting number of such children. There are five students who perpetually disrupt the class and demand extra attention. No private school would allow these boys across its threshold.
Voucher backers dismiss this issue: ``Private schools typically accept the vast majority of students who apply,'' separationist writer Andrew L. Coulson remarks airily.
That's not what my friends have found. I know many bright children who've been rejected by private schools. Their parents were told their kids had behavior problems, weren't ready for kindergarten or lacked fine-motor skills. Private schools require a battery of audit periods, evaluations, home visits, interviews, observation, record reviews, screenings, testing, school visits and personal recommendations. My son's disruptive classmates would be left out in the cold.
Pro-voucher counterclaim: Some public schools, such as magnet schools, also pick and choose.
Reality: When public schools can pick and choose as private schools do, they achieve like private schools -- if not better. San Francisco's Lowell High School (application by academic criteria) and School of the Arts (application by audition plus academic criteria) both rank a perfect 10 on California's academic performance index. Suburban students vie for interdistrict transfers to School of the Arts, and Lowell is so rigorous that students switch to private schools to escape the stress.
Pro-voucher claim: Competition would force public schools to improve.
Reality: Voucher advocates don't believe this line themselves ``when the microphone is turned off,'' Bast and Harmer note. Still, let's offer this analogy: The Rams get their pick among NFL stars, while the 49ers must accept anyone who wants to play -- plus some who don't. Does this force the 49ers to improve when the teams compete?
Pro-voucher claim: Vouchers help disadvantaged children.
Reality: This line might be moving if it weren't a cruel lie. The real agenda is to eliminate mandatory public education -- and probably public funding for all education. The voucher movement's cynical deceit woos poor families with a promised benefit while working to ultimately cut off their children's access to education. That's why Prop. 38 is a disastrous idea.
Caroline Grannan is a San Francisco public school parent, classroom volunteer and writer.
© 2000 Mercury Center