Vouchers and Values

by Matt Soriano | 10/19/00 5:00am

Certain commentators in The Dartmouth seem to believe that vouchers for religiously based schools would introduce students to a reality that hadn't existed previously. Jared Alessandroni's point, if I'm not mistaken, was that religious schools by the very notion of being founded by Jesuits or Jews may indoctrinate a student into certain belief patterns. Yet any school that teaches well indoctrinates a student into certain belief patterns. Civic service, respect for authority, and mental discipline were all values which were unconsciously bestowed upon me by my private and secular high school. Honesty, discipline and respect for democracy are taught -- or should be taught -- by good public schools; shall we then say that schools ought not to focus on ANY value system and rather focus on strict learning? No, because if we did then kids could learn from correspondence courses. School imparts values to kids. And therefore we ought to allow parents to choose the values that the kids are taught.

Their underlying notion seems that religiously based values are divisive and less worthy than other ones, or that the values taught in school ought to be the same ones for everyone. But if that was true, then we'd have an actively secular state something like the Soviet Union or Turkey, where the government oppresses religion entirely, closing down convent schools and shuttering churches. By the present situation now -- where parents who can afford it are allowed to remove their children from the public system -- public education is not for the imparting of values to all citizens; else we'd have mandatory public education. Only the least common denominator of values are taught there, the values that prevent us as a society from descending into anarchy. Parents who want their children to learn more than that send their children to private and religious schools. Why not allow that for everyone and not just the chosen few? By the same token, if these values are not responsible to the government -- a fear often expressed by the anti-voucher forces -- then parents have the capacity to remove their kid from that school.

Indeed, these individuals often note that extending the freedoms of the wealthy to even more people is wrong, because some people would be trapped in public schools. Isn't that the situation now? Isn't it currently the system that some parents who can afford it will not settle for public education? Why not allow even more people to abandon public education? They often bring out the tired old argument that vouchers take money away from public schools. They do indeed do this, but they do not take money away from education. A voucher system would simply reduce the size of a school but not reduce the money per student. What would happen to schools is like the downsizing of the 1991 recession. Downsizing allows any institution to become more focused on its core responsibilities. Large, bloated school systems waste money more than smaller ones do. Moreover, reform can come more quickly to smaller school systems. Vouchers won't wreck good school systems. They'll save the students from the bad ones and create more manageable conditions for the bad ones to reform.

The worst argument that the anti-voucher forces give is that only the smarter kids, or those with the parents able to pay the difference between vouchers and private school tuition, or those whose parents care -- these kids will flee from the public schools leaving only the hardest-to-teach, the poorest, and the apathetic, all of whom require more than the average amount per student to instruct. The easiest way to break that argument's back is to consider that this "cross pollination" effect on low achievers might work on high achievers as well; therefore the high achievers deserve a lifeboat out of that mess.

But I digress from the main assumption of this argument: that students need more money to have a better education. That is wrong. The United States ranks low in international studies for math, science and reading scores yet spends the most among the industrialized nations. Thai students packed 50 to a dirt-floored classroom score better than more fortunate Americans. Even in the Lawrenceville School, my alma mater, where the boarders' tuition was $27,000 plus about $14,000 of endowment spending per student, there were still students that failed classes or got abysmally low SAT scores. By the same token we see kids from the most neglected school districts earning their way into Dartmouth and Harvard. I reject that absurd notion that more money can be thrown at kids who don't want to learn or that kids who want to learn are hamstrung by funds. The amount that a student learns is most definitely not related to the amount of money devoted to his education.

Thus vouchers would at worst continue the status quo of values education and fiscal limits to learning and at best force all schools to reform and allow parents a life raft away from the mediocrity that characterizes American education.

Advertise your student group in The Dartmouth for free!