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.-ERIK RUZEK, ED261