Thursday, January 31, 2008

Pell Grants for Kids?

President Bush called again for a voucher-like program for low-income families in his final State of the Union address. Thinking about Kozol, one can see there are both liberty and equity arguments at play in the voucher debate.

Equity in public education hasn’t been particularly evident throughout history. Nonetheless, the argument against vouchers is that they will further enlarge the gap between the haves and have-nots, siphoning money from public schools to private, often religious, schools. Bush and other voucher supporters take more of a liberty approach, arguing that students and families should have the freedom to opt out of public schools when those schools are failing them. Without vouchers, one might argue, private schools will continue to be the domain of wealthy elite and failing public schools the domain of poor, often minority, students.

This is a highly contentious issue. But when one reads accounts of education in private schools, as in the Byrk, Lee, and Holland study of Catholic high schools, one cannot help but think that these schools are doing something right. Is the answer to allow more low-income students the opportunity to attend a Catholic or other private school, as the Bush proposal would do? I know that if I were a low-income parent faced with the thought of sending my kid to a public school with a poor reputation for positive educational outcomes, I wouldn’t reject out-of-hand a program that offered to help me give my kid a chance for a better schooling situation.

There will always be valid arguments that parents in a position to take advantage of these programs will be the higher-income, higher-social and cultural capital families. However, vigorous outreach programs aimed at parents and children in low-income schools could alter this dynamic. It remains, however, a tough idea to swallow for those of us who believe in public education.



Jimmy said...

I heard this the other night too and it came up during class yesterday. Vouchers have always been a contentious issue. I tend to side with the group against vouchers. In the end there will not be enough vouchers to truly make a difference and the students who tend to utilize the vouchers are the ones who are doing relatively well in the school they are already in. Vouchers promote a sort of "market-like" atmosphere in education where it is assumed that people will leave the "bad" schools because they are "inefficient". This flies directly in the face of NCLB and it's ultimate goal of leaving no child behind. Children will be left behind because there is simply not enough capacity in private schools for all children and not enough funding to bring the remaining public schools up to par with these private schools.

It is my opinion that schooling in America should not look like a business. The "market" will not just work itself out. We need to invest in our public schools while applying models from the private school settings that seem to work so well. Obviously there will be inequities in funding, but there are opportunities to take curricular advances, restructure sizes of schools and classrooms, and further promote a college prep curriculum for all high school students. These advances must take place within public institutions or people will continue to "opt out" of the market through dropout and disengagement.

Laurie Hansen said...

I agree with Jimmy that "business" is not a good model for our school system. I find it arrogant when successful business people assume that they can "fix" the educational system using free market and business as an example. It's bad enough that our society's wealth is unequally distributed, why would we want to replicate this in the schools? What I find most offensive is business people who know nothing about education making decisions and forcing mandates that hurt children. The goals of business (e.g., making profit) are so different from the goals of schooling that it just doesn't make sense to me to compare the two.