If all you knew about modern American politics you learned from the recent debate on vouchers, you'd be forgiven for thinking that the issue conservatives really, really care about these days is what happens to low-income, inner-city kids. And that liberals despise, distrust, and scorn private schools as the bane to education in this country (although—shhhh!—it's a safe bet that many of their own kids aren't walking the halls of P.S. 52).
School vouchers are an interesting choice of battleground in the church-state culture wars, more smoke than fire since the public-funds-to-religious-institutions Rubicon was crossed long ago—think Medicaid prescriptions filled at the pharmacy of Catholic hospitals, or Pell grants for students at religious colleges. While the Establishment Clause is worth fighting for, the voucher case was the wrong issue.
While the education aspects raised in the Cleveland voucher case decided by the Supreme Court this summer are real and significant, the court's ruling—and much of the public debate since—may serve to obscure more than enlighten. The rhetoric has leaned toward the apocalyptic from both sides. Conservatives claim that vouchers will "save education in America" (they won't), while liberals see them as sounding the death knell for public education (not likely).
What vouchers do is provide hope—and the chance at a decent education—for a few families that might otherwise not be able to afford such options. What vouchers don't—and can't—do is fix what ails the system of public education in this country.
VOUCHERS BRING together—and push apart—some remarkable political and racial coalitions, and both parties are running to drive the wedge as deep as possible—but carefully, since there's a real danger of political recoil if the issue isn't played right. Republicans love vouchers, partly because they can be seen as responding to the desires of inner-city (read: black) parents (read: voters) without actually doing anything about the root causes of poverty, crime, or—more to the point—failing schools. Democrats hate vouchers because—well, mainly because they fear the teachers' unions. And on this issue, the unions are wrong.
Ask an inner-city public school teacher what she thinks about vouchers. Her "official" answer will likely include a (very real) concern about scant resources being drawn away from often-underfunded public schools. But get her to talk off the record, in private, and she'll probably say, "If I were a parent, I'd want the option of sending my kids to private schools."
The teachers' union agenda is protection of the status quo. Unfortunately, the status quo is broken; it doesn't need protection, but reform. Vouchers don't do anything to reform the schools, unless you buy the argument that "competition" will force schools to improve. And there's plenty of evidence that many ailing school systems do indeed need a compelling motivation (read: a kick in the butt) to make necessary changes.
Reform of our education system will take many forms, including some as-yet-untried innovations. Some forward-looking educators have advocated a radical restructuring of how we set up—and fund—our metropolitan school districts, so that kids aren't punished for having poor parents and living in a low-tax-base part of town.
The proper goal of education reform is not to remove a few children from failing schools, but to create the opportunity for all children to receive a quality education. For that to succeed, we'll need a panoply of approaches—that will include vouchers, to be sure, but also more resources for our public schools, and significant and promising innovations such as charter schools. Perhaps what the court has given us is a teachable moment. Let's pray we use it.
Jim Rice is managing editor of Sojourners.